Verdict: Four stars out of five. Movie buffs will love this movie about a movie, and possibly the most influential director of them all. But it is not simply the story of one man’s battle with the studios and the censors to get his film made. Instead, it is about the key relationship behind it all: Alfred Hitchcock and his wife Alma Reville. Anthony Hopkins is as compelling as ever, enjoying a wonderful chemistry with fellow British acting veteran Helen Mirren. Fact and fiction mix freely in this film, and you will be enthralled, amused and disturbed. 

©Fox Searchlight PIctures

Alfred Hitchcock presentes…Hitchcock ©Fox Searchlight Pictures

If there was a line to sum up Hitchcock, it would be this: “All of us harbour dark recesses of violence and horror,” muses Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins).  And despite the lighter moments, this story of the making of the classic horror movie Psycho (1960), has a very dark core indeed.

It feels fitting that a film about a legendary director and his greatest movie should open with him breaking the fourth wall, especially as a nod to 1950s TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. And what an opening too – the audience is brought to the scene of real-life serial killer Ed Gein’s (Michael Wincott) first murder, and the inspiration for the book upon which Psycho was based. Alfred Hitchcock stands detached from it all, daintily drinking his cup of tea, almost as if he were directing the scene. As he pithily declares to the audience, without Gein’s heinous crimes, “we wouldn’t have our little movie”.

We join Hitchcock, or Hitch as wife Alma Reville (Helen Mirren) so fondly calls him, at a point in his career when he is stuck. He’s just made the classic spy thriller North by Northwest (1959), but  needs a new project to get his teeth into. “A nice, clean, nasty piece of work, that’s what I’m looking for,” he declares. But at 60, the critics are already writing him off. Then one day, his assistant Peggy Robertson (Toni Collette) gives  Hitch a copy of the novel Psycho, by Robert Bloch.

Hitchcock discovers the novel Psycho ©Fox Searchlight PIctures

Hitchcock was nonplussed to discover that Psycho was actually a children’s book. ©Fox Searchlight Pictures

Like all creative geniuses, Hitchcock was eccentric and insecure, and the movie more than reflects this. Having decided to adapt Bloch’s book, he orders Robertson to buy up every copy of the novel so that there will be no spoilers when the movie is released. Then he circulates graphic photos of Gein’s victims to journalists at a press conference to announce that he will be adapting Psycho. But as he ends up financing the project himself because Paramount Studios will not back it, Hitch’s insecurity is never far away. “They’ve put me in a coffin, and now they’re nailing down the lid,” he says gloomily.

It’s a good thing then, that he has the perfect wife in Alma: brutally honest, fiercely intelligent and backing her man to the hilt despite his idiosyncrasies. It is this relationship that lies at the heart of the movie. As ever, Mirren brings a proud dignity to the character, almost stealing the show from Hopkins, and with some choice lines too. She tells screenwriter and alleged real-life lover Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), who is trying to get her to help write a screenplay, point blank: “All this relentless sycophancy is actually giving me indigestion.” And when a movie critic writes that the climax of North by Northwest is overdrawn, Alma’s frostily acid response is both bitchy and sublimely delivered: “Well, I doubt (that critic) has had a climax in years.”

The perfect partnership ©Fox Searchlight Pictures

Like all autobiographies, Hitchcock takes more than a few liberties with the truth. There are some very disturbing sequences where Hitch imagines himself talking to the serial killer Gein. One scene even takes Hitchcock’s well-known tendency to obsess over his leading ladies to its logical conclusion: he spies on cast member Vera Miles (Jessica Biel) through a peephole, a la Norman Bates in Psycho. But it seems that Alma’s role in Hitchcock’s success cannot be overstated. “You may not be the easiest man to live with, but you do know how to cut a picture better than anyone else,” says Alma. To which Hitch easily responds: “Except for you.”

Movie buffs will lap up the little details of how Psycho was made. For example, censors objected to a scene where Janet Leigh’s (Scarlett Johansson) character flushes a piece of paper down the toilet, simply because up to that point, a flushing toilet had never been shown in an American film. Also, Hitchcock did not want the now famous soundtrack playing over THE shower scene where Leigh gets stabbed – it was Alma who persuaded him otherwise. Hitch is almost clenching his teeth as he attempts to placate the censors: “I assure you, my murders are always models of taste and discretion.”

Director Sacha Gervasi keeps the narrative ticking along nicely with a strong streak of black humour, and at a little over 90 minutes, feels just right.  But the supporting cast is given little to do, though James D’Arcy sports an immaculate American accent as Anthony Perkins. Johansson is earnest and bright, while Biel simply comes and goes with minimal impact. Hopkins and Mirren simply overshadow everybody else, though this is hardly a bad thing. It feels almost criminal that neither of them garnered a Oscar nomination for their efforts. In the end, Hitchcock is a worthy tribute to one of the great directors and his muse and creative partner.

"Ah, the water's too hot! Too hot!" ©Fox Searchlight PIctures

“Ah, the water’s too hot! Too hot!” ©Fox Searchlight Pictures

Hitchcock opens in Singapore today. Tell me what you thought of the movie!