Toby Jones, portraying Alfred Hitchcock, with Sienna Miller, portraying… (Kelly Walsh, HBO )
There are two Alfred Hitchcock biopics being released this fall. "Hitchcock," coming in November, is a big-screen affair, set during the filming of "Psycho," with Anthony Hopkins as the portly master of suspense, Helen Mirren as wife and consultant Alma Reville and Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh.
"The Girl", which premieres Saturday on HBO, focuses on the relationship between Hitchcock and actress Tippi Hedren during the making of "The Birds" and "Marnie." It stars Toby Jones, Imelda Staunton and Sienna Miller, as Hitch, Alma and Tippi, with Cape Town, South Africa, in the role of Hollywood, U.S.A. Without having seen "Hitchcock," I think we can agree that by the metrics of star power, budget and hoopla, this is the lesser work.
Which is not to say the worse one. (We don't know that yet.) Indeed, Jones does an excellent job of impersonating the director while also acting a person. (And he looks more naturally the part than the heavily made-up Hopkins does in trailers.) Miller, though she is playing the less iconic part, is suitably Hedrenesque; more to the point, she plays a nice mix of capability and confusion.
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Directed by Julian Jarrold ("Appropriate Adult") and written by Gwyneth Hughes ("Five Days), it has the advantage of focusing on a single relationship over a relatively brief period of time; it doesn't rush you through a career. Hedren, a model with no acting experience, was of the cool blonder type Hitchcock favored — Grace Kelly, Eva Marie Saint and Kim Novak were her predecessors — and he put her under contract and his control.
"Not sure about those pearls," he says when they meet.
"I'll be putty in your hands," she promises.
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The most convincing scenes are the earliest, as Hitchcock, with the sometime assistance of Alma, begins to school Hedren in acting, Hitchcock-style. But these are overtaken by the film's main meat, derived from Donald Spoto's "Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies," which portrays the director as in love with or obsessed with, but certainly imposing himself upon Hedren.
As things escalate from Hitchcock's assailing his new star with dirty limericks to jumping her in the back of a limousine to pelting her for five days with live birds to an imperial demand for sex, "The Girl" all but turns into a Hitchcock movie, with dark underscoring and an expectation of violence. But the more it feels like a film, the less persuasive it becomes.
All biography is hypothesis, assembled from facts, hearsay and the notion that where there's smoke there's fire. Adaptation adds another layer of doubt. Something like this might have happened, you think, but did it happen like this?
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It doesn't help that the South African locations are discordant as well; every movie-literate American knows what a Hollywood sound stage looks like, and it is not made out of brick.
Neither the script nor the production is substantial enough to make the story quite stand on its own. Our familiarity with the director and his films is taken as a given. (There are also gratuitous visual references to "Psycho" and "Vertigo.")
You need to know that Hitchcock was a real-life Famous Artist in order for the drama, not to say the creepiness, to fully take effect. Otherwise, this is just the story of a sadistic sad old man and the young woman who escapes his clutches.