Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Cinema File #84: "Hitchcock" and "The Girl" Review

Last year, much like the competing releases of the two Snow White related films Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsmen, we were given another set of two movies released roughly around the same time both focusing on the same basic topic, specifically, the life and work of Alfred Hitchcock. The theatrical film Hitchcock centers on the director's relationship with his wife Alma through the production of Psycho, while the TV movie The Girl centers on his relationship with Tippi Hedren through the production of The Birds and Marnie. Contrary to film snob canon, I've always preferred The Birds to Psycho personally, but my taste regarding the relative subject matter is only the first of many reasons why The Girl comes off as the far superior film, and why Hitchcock fails miserably both on its own and by comparison.

If not for the bigger named actors involved with Hitchcock, if I didn't know which of these films was the theatrical release and which was made for TV, I would never have guessed correctly. The Girl is a tense, slowly building and thoroughly satisfying behind the scenes look at two classic movies and the dark, twisted circumstances surrounding them, with the famous director portrayed as the complex and often vile person that he was despite his genius. Hitchcock on the other hand plays out like one of those bad sitcoms with a fat ungrateful husband with a wife that's far too good (and hot) for him. You'll know in the first five minutes of each film the stark differences between how this director's life is being portrayed, one moody and atmospheric highlighting the very beginning of his burgeoning infatuation with a new blonde starlet, and the other a farcical fantasy sequence that leads into a hamfisted and far too lighthearted dramedy.

The biggest problem with Hitchcock and the most drastic difference between it and The Girl is that the former film presents the character as essentially the hero, an eccentric but ultimately kind soul with a vision we know is worth realizing, while the latter film follows the much more accurate and dramatic tack of Hitchcock as villain, tormenting his leading ladies as he plumbs the depths of obsession and misogyny. Unable or unwilling to fulfill the promise of intriguing background details of the filming of Psycho, all we get with Hitchcock is a boring tale of love on the rocks that is not only the least interesting possible story you could mine from this material, but one that isn't even born out of reality, with one character involved in the love quartet being wholly an invention of the film. The Girl manages to meld the inside Hollywood elements with a story of Hitchcock's complicated romantic and sexual life in a way that is both true to the events that inspired it and instantly captivating.

Toby Jones first came to my attention in another film based on a true story released around the same time as another more successful film, playing the writer Truman Capote in the movie that didn't have Phillip Seymour Hoffman in it. The fact that Jones' Hitchcock will no doubt be consigned to the same dismissive realm of also-ran and little seen performances, and Anthony Hopkins will be remembered as the last actor to fill this role, is frankly a travesty. Jones exudes menace and embraces this character's more unsettling qualities with gusto, while Hopkins is by contrast probably as bad as I have ever seen him, making no attempt to explore who this person is and often appearing as though he's reading his lines off of cue cards just off screen. Hopkins' Hitchcock struggles with censors and studio heads, grapples with an eating disorder, and even has a series of imaginary conversations with serial killer Ed Gein, but nothing of value is ever learned about the man other than that he likes movies and loves his wife. Jones' Hitchcock is three ticks away from a rapist who is defined by ego and subversion. That these two movies can even exist is a testament to the complexity of the man in question, and The Girl is the only one of them to deal with that complexity at all.

Helen Mirren's Alma is naturally a larger part of Hitchcock than The Girl, but even then I felt Imelda Staunton's brief take on the same character's quiet life of contradiction was far more compelling, if only because the context was more authentic. In the end though, as the title suggests, The Girl is Sienna Miller's movie, and her Tippi Hendren is easily a far better protagonist. Her story is a classic Hollywood tale of a small town girl given the chance to live out her dream, only to find the reality much harder to deal with than the fantasy. As we see her take more and more abuse, refusing to break under the pressure, her plight gradually shifts into a contest of wills between her and her tormentor, who in turn becomes increasingly unhinged by his failure to dominate her. There's just so much more to love about The Girl, both in terms of the actual events that inspired this film as opposed to those surrounding Psycho, and in how it is so effectively executed as compared to Hitchcock.

I had originally planned to release this review as part of my Mockbusted series, but in the end, I didn't want to suggest that such a far superior film was a rip off of one so terrible just because it happened to have a smaller release. At the end of the day, when it comes to this latest foray into Hollywood's strange propensity to throw out multiple takes on the same subject matter in the same year there is ironically no comparison.


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