2012-40 REV Hitchcock Helen Mirren Anthony Hopkins H

Helen Mirren and Anthony Hopkins -- as Alma and Alfred Hitchcock -- had never worked together.

Sacha Gervasi's entertaining biopic on the relationship between the filmmaker and his wife is absorbing and aptly droll.

The most publicly recognizable director during his lifetime has now, 32 years after his death, become the subject of two films set at nearly the same time: HBO's just-aired The Girl and Hitchcock.

Both stress a creepy vibe concerning the master manipulator's obsession with his blond female stars, but Fox Searchlight's big-screen effort elevates itself well above that preoccupation by warmly examining Alfred Hitchcock's deeply complicit relationship with his wife, Alma. This narrative directing debut by Sacha Gervasi (Anvil! The Story of Anvil) remains absorbing and droll despite a few dramatic ups and downs -- and is led by large performances from Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren.

While The Girl focused on the director's infatuation with his discovery Tippi Hedren during the making of The Birds and Marnie in the early '60s, Hitchcock looks at the period just before, in 1959-60, when he made a bold departure from his normal methods with Psycho. Because of legal restrictions, no footage from the actual Psycho could be shown, and the lack of detail about the production of this suspense classic is a disappointment on a certain level. But Gervasi and screenwriter John J. McLaughlin (Black Swan) take the alternate tack of delving into their subject's imagined mental and emotional state at the time, which, however speculative, exerts a lurid pull.

Perhaps the most fanciful of the script's constructs is proposing a weird communal relationship between Hitchcock and Ed Gein, the Wisconsin murderer, disinterment specialist and mother obsessive who served as the inspiration for Robert Bloch's novel Psycho. As Hitch remarks to Alma at one point, "All men are potential murderers," and Gein (Michael Wincott), in encounters that variously take the form of nightmares and elementary psychological discourses, forces the director to confront his most morbid motivations, advising that, "You can't keep this stuff bottled up."

But if Gein found release in murder and necrophilia, Hitchcock found his in creativity, channeling his darkest thoughts about human nature into mass entertainment that played with audiences' fears.

At the outset, Hitch (as he tells Janet Leigh: "You can call me Hitch. Hold the cock") is riding the wave of one of his greatest commercial successes, North by Northwest, as well as producing the television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. All the same, he's agitated about the lack of exciting material (he rejects Ian Fleming's Casino Royale as being more of the same spy stuff) and disturbed, at 60, of suddenly being perceived as old.

But the shocking, bloody nastiness of Psycho excites him, and the more everyone -- Paramount, his agent Lew Wasserman -- tells him the story is cheap "horror movie claptrap," the fiercer his determination to make it becomes. The Hitchcocks are forced to gamble their Bel-Air home to run with the director's hunch, increasing his urgency and anxiety. Initially resistant, Alma finally throws her full support behind her husband, as she always has, revealing what eventually emerges as the film's dominant impulse, which is to spotlight Alma Reville Hitchcock as an essential partner in her mate's extraordinary success.

A sometimes-credited screenwriter for Hitch but always a story editor and adviser, Alma by now is a bit fed up with standing in the background while her husband eats and drinks too much and indulges in fantasy romances with his gorgeous stars. She embarks on a collaboration with a dashing younger screenwriter, which Hitch eventually suspects has become an affair. This torment, along with the stress of Psycho, pushes Hitch to the limit, with the suggestion that it even feeds the punishment he wants to inflict upon the eventual audience.

The best scenes in Hitchcock are the dryly witty exchanges between Hopkins and Mirren. Hopkins has the confidence to get the viewer past the obvious dissimilarities between him and the man he is playing and pull you along for what is an engaging ride. It's a compelling performance, one layered with the intelligence, craftiness and wit associated with Sir Alfred.

The robust, voluptuous Mirren could not be more physically contrary to the short, birdlike Alma, but, working on the same high level as her co-star, she strongly registers the woman's frustrations, accommodations of her husband's difficult nature and her seldom articulated desire to be recognized.

Of the film's stars, Scarlett Johansson gives Leigh an openness that is very appealing; Jessica Biel portrays Vera Miles as a woman who, having incurred her director's wrath by dropping out of the lead in Vertigo at the last minute because of pregnancy, can't wait to get out of her contract with him; and James D'Arcy is physically right and all nervous quirks and uncertainties as Anthony Perkins.

Bernard Herrmann is given proper credit for his immortal score and for overriding his director's objections to placing music (the chilling shrieking strings) over the shower sequence.

Gervasi displays abundant energy and visual tact at the helm, with great assists from cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, production designer Judy Becker, costume designer Julie Weiss, editor Pamela Martin and composer Danny Elfman, who does not ape Herrmann so much as weave around him to dextrous effect.

Hitchcock might be a work of fantasy and speculation as much as it is history and biography, but as an interpretation of a major talent's inner life and imagination, it's undeniably lively and provocative.

Venue: AFI Film Festival
Opens: Friday, Nov. 23 (Fox Searchlight)
Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johansson, Toni Collette, Danny Huston
Director: Sacha Gervasi Rated PG-13, 98 minutes