The best way to look at this movie is not as the story of Alfred Hitchcock making Psycho. This movie is about what it was like to be married to Alfred Hitchcock while he was making Psycho. While Helen Mirren receives second billing behind Anthony Hopkins, she is very much in the foreground as Alma, the woman behind the Master of Suspense through much of his career, and it is her performance that carries this movie.
The movie picks up with Hitchcock flush with the success of North by Northwest. He has the pick of projects, and the studio is hopeful that he’ll do something just as commercial, maybe even adapt those spy novels by Ian Fleming.
But Hitchcock fixates on a novel by Robert Bloch, inspired by the infamous exploits of Ed Gein (Michael Wincott). The studio is horrified, worried that such a project will end up being another Vertigo, which despite its classic status today, was a commercial flop. Hitchcock is determined, however, even to the point of mortgaging his and Alma’s house and using his television crew to shoot the movie.
Hope you don’t mind, I told Mrs Bates she could use your dressing room.
For her part, Alma is tired of laboring in the shadow of her husband, and flirts quite literally with an outside project for friend and occasional Hitchcock screenwriter Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston). She is also tired a her husbands incessantly lecherous infatuations with his female stars, such as Vera Miles (Jessica Biel) and Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johannson).
Anthony Hopkins does his best to disappear into the role of the famous director, but doesn’t entirely succeed. Despite technically impressive makeup, there are times when you are acutely aware you are listening to Hopkins attempt vocal mimicry of Hitchcock’s distinctive delivery. Even when you are not aware you are watching Hopkins, you never get the feeling that the man on screen is really Alfred Hitchcock.
One dramatic device features Hitchcock conversing with the ghost of Ed Gein, who serves to reinforce the director’s suspicions that Alma is having an affair with Whitfield Cook, and it is too ham-handed to work. Director Sacha Gervasi does a decent job of making the movie look and sound like a Hitchcock film, but the main narrative fails to hold together. There is a compelling tension in the director’s irrational resentment toward Vera Miles, who bowed out of Vertigo to have a baby, but the central story of the tension in the Hitchcock marriage, never really comes together.