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NEW YORK – “Once upon a time there was a sculptor who made a beautiful statue out of marble,” says Toby Jones, persuasively sporting the jowls, the girth and the emotionless cadences of Alfred Hitchcock in the HBO movie, The Girl. “He fell in love with his own creation, but the gods looked kindly on him and brought her to life. And they lived happily ever after.”
That, at least, is the self-deluding way Hitch sees the scenario playing out in this absorbing but somewhat bloodless account of the legendary director’s working relationship and spiraling obsession with his star and chosen plaything, Tippi Hedren (Sienna Miller), during filming of The Birds and Marnie.
Premiering at the Hamptons Film Festival in advance of its HBO bow on Oct. 20, the film slips in ahead of Fox Searchlight’s Hitchcock, starring Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren, which revolves around production on Psycho. That one opens the AFI Festival in Los Angeles Nov. 1 before hitting theaters Nov. 23.
Scripted by Gwyneth Hughes from the most salacious section of Donald Spoto’s book “Spellbound By Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies,” The Girl is loaded with delicious treats for film buffs and Hitchcock fetishists.
Among them are recreations of the endless retakes that went into Hedren’s ornithological ordeal in the attic scene of The Birds, as well as the dangerous surprise the director sprang on her in that film’s phone booth siege. Also revisited is the title character memorably sashaying along a railway platform clutching a bright yellow handbag stuffed with loot in the opening of Marnie, and – somewhat more coyly given the reticence to show a Sean Connery stand-in – the rape scene that shatters her purportedly frigid cool.
Of course, the ice blonde with the volcano underneath was the quintessential Hitchcock type, and this film, efficiently directed by Julian Jarrold, spends much time and effort exploring that attraction.
Hedren is first spotted by Hitch’s wife and most trusted advisor Alma (Imelda Staunton), beaming on a TV commercial. Called in to audition, she becomes an instant object of fascination and desire for the director. Hitchcock views the divorced model’s inexperience as an actress and her lack of marital or romantic impediments as assets. He dictates her makeup, hair, wardrobe and even her weight.
While January Jones is arguably the ultimate 21st century embodiment of the Hitchcock blonde, it’s conceivable that, were he still around today, Miller might be on his radar. The script doesn’t quite build Hedron into a three-dimensional character, but Miller makes a suitably beguiling prey to Jones’ predator while still showing enough backbone not to fall completely victim to the puppet-master’s power games. One of the most interesting scenes is an intimate drama-coaching session in which Hitch has her erase more and more of herself with each successive line reading until he arrives at the right glacial remoteness.
Sauntering along to Philip Miller’s slinky cocktail-jazz score, the early action in particular suffers from the same shortcomings as last year’s Hollywood history excursion, My Week With Marilyn. There are juicy details and compelling central characters, but little texture around them. The attention to period recreation is too clean and fussy, and the necessity to namedrop famous players without actually portraying them becomes a drawback. Not only Connery but all of Hedren’s co-stars in The Birds and Marnie are MIA, which leaves the production scenes feeling thin and inauthentic.
Hughes and Jarrold try to counter that by beefing up the role of Hitch’s assistant director Jim Brown (Carl Beukes). Despite considerable screen time he remains a non-character, not helped by South African actor Beukes’ wandering American accent. Staunton’s shrewdly observant Alma and Penelope Wilton as Hitchcock’s long-serving assistant and diplomatic go-between, Peggy Robertson, add some color. But their roles are too limited to elevate this two-character piece into a full-bodied drama.
Miller’s performance grows more compelling as Tippi becomes unnerved, traumatized and steadily repulsed by her director’s mix of sadism and sexual overtures. However, the movie is misleadingly titled. It should be The Director, not The Girl.
Jones has the stance, the gait and the glassy-eyed stare of Hitchcock down pat, and as the story progresses, it becomes clear that he and not his blonde goddess is the one who is “cold as marble.” The actor explores Hitchcock’s sexually repressed hangups with both mischief and pathos, whether he’s reciting crude limericks or drunkenly confessing his impotence, male envy and self-loathing to Jim. Even when Hitch starts making explicit demands of Tippi, one suspects Alma might be right when she knowingly snipes, “The day she ever drops her knickers, you’ll run a mile.”
Jones gives an astute and technically precise performance even if, given Hitchcock’s droll self-awareness, he might have had more fun with it. Psychologically, the script sells him short. The sexual dynamic and the conflicted urges of worship and ownership are examined in prosaically literal and superficial ways.
The film borrows such Hitchcock trademarks as Saul Bass-style opening-credit graphics, voyeuristic camera angles, and Bernard Herrmann inflections in the score as the action turns darker. What’s lacking, however, are those defining qualities of Hitchcock classics – suspense, intrigue and cruelly subversive humor. Anyone with even a smattering of film knowledge knows that Hedren’s screen career as a leading lady began and ended with these two films, so there’s never enough at stake as he tightens his grip and she squirms to get loose.
Both Jarrold and Hughes have skillfully manipulated tension and mystery in the past – the director in his mesmerizing entry in the Red Riding telefilm trilogy; the screenwriter on the tightly plotted 2010 miniseries Five Days. So it’s disappointing that this is a diverting curio rather than a deep plunge into the cold waters of obsession.
For the record, celebrity trivia hounds will get a kick out of watching a junior Melanie Griffith (Angelina Ingpen) wake Mom from being pecked to death in a daydream after walking off the set of The Birds.
Venue: Hamptons Film Festival
Airdate: 9 p.m. Saturday Oct. 20 (HBO)
Production companies: Warner Bros. Entertainment GmbH, Moonlighting, HBO Films, Wall To Wall Media, in association with BBC
Cast: Toby Jones, Sienna Miller, Imelda Staunton, Carl Beukes, Penelope Wilton, Conrad Kemp, Candice D’Arcy
Director: Julian Jarrold
Screenwriter: Gwyneth Hughes, based on the book “Spellbound By Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies,” by Donald Spoto
Producer: Amanda Jenks
Executive producers: Leanne Klein, Lucy Richer
Director of photography: John Pardue
Production designer: Darryl Hammer
Music: Philip Miller
Costume designer: Diana Cilliers
Editor: Andrew Hulme
No rating, 90 minutes
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