‘Lincoln’ and ‘Hitchcock’: A matched set?

Gervasi Director Sacha Gervasi at “Hitchcock” world premiere Thursday at Grauman’s. (Eric Charbonneau/WireImage)

Let’s take an icon, put his last name in the title, and focus on the pivotal months of his life and career, in which he wrestles against a diverse set of obstacles unique to the moment, with a wife who pendulates between support and alienation, ultimately emerging in a hard-fought triumph that he was unable to replicate thereafter.

“Hitchcock,” meet “Lincoln.” “Lincoln,” “Hitchcock.”

That’s not to stay the films — or their awards chances — are identical, but the parallels are striking.

Though the marital issues in “Hitchcock” (which premiered Thursday on the opening night of AFI Fest) are more compelling, “Lincoln” is probably the more successful film and more likely best picture candidate. Steven Spielberg’s film isn’t deeply moving, but it does depict a deeply complex world — and its 150 minutes never feel slow. I regretted that I didn’t feel Lincoln’s struggles more in my bones, but I certainly appreciated them. 

That dichotomy is probably the result of a Tony Kushner screenplay that, while jaunty enough in its earlier moments, relies increasingly as the movie proceeds on speechifying, even in conversational dialogue. The words are well chosen, but they’re not particularly intimate. Peter Debruge echoes this point in his Variety review:

… The theater-trained scribe, who previously co-wrote “Munich” for the
director, defies what admirers expect of a Spielberg-made Lincoln
biopic. In place of vicarious emotion and tour de force filmmaking,
“Lincoln” offers a largely static intellectual reappraisal of the great
orator, limiting not only the scenery chewing but also the scenery
itself in what amounts to Spielberg’s most play-like production yet;
it’s a style that will keep many viewers at arm’s length. …

Sacha Gervasi’s “Hitchcock,” scripted by John J. McLaughlin, is snappier — it straddles comedy and drama and, as far as the Golden Globes go, might well belong in the former category thanks to its sparks of wit. At the same time, it will be remembered for two searingly dramatic scenes — one involving Hitchcock directing the famous “Psycho” shower slashing, the other with Helen Mirren (as Hitchcock’s wife Alma) in a searing monologue that will be her signature clip for the next 3 1/2 months, a lead actress Oscar nomination a definite possibility. Anthony Hopkins was convincing as well — nicely served not only by his performance but by the top-notch makeup department.

But while the movie succeeds in these areas, it falters in conveying a sense of importance, even relative to its subject matter. Obviously, Hitch, Alma and “Psycho” were never going to be on the same plane as Abe, Mary and abolition, but even grading on that curve — relationship movies of all stripes are my bread and butter —”Hitchcock” feels narrow. The movie has only sporadic edge, and the characters outside of the central twosome are underserved. Put another way, you’re watching the making of “Psycho,” and you realize you’d just rather see “Psycho” again.

Here’s how Justin Chang put it to open his just-released Variety review.

“Hitchcock” is a diverting but dramatically insipid account of how
the Master of Suspense took his biggest gamble and delivered his
greatest success with “Psycho.” Focusing less on the production of that
1960 masterpiece than the strain it caused the director’s relationship
with his long-suffering wife, Alma Reville, this behind-the-scenes
bonbon offers an easily digestible menu of dishy one-liners and capable
performances. But while international and ancillary prospects look
decent, the film buffs likely to constitute the bulk of Fox
Searchlight’s audience will be left unsatisfied by the picture’s lack of
density, texture or insight into its ostensible subject. …

It’s remarkable how different “Hitchcock” is from HBO’s recent telepic “The Girl,” which takes presents Toby Jones as a much darker, more deviant Hitchcock and Imelda Staunton a largely passive Alma, who recedes unhappily complicitly in the background in the face of Sienna Miller’s tormented Tippi Hedren. In Gervasi’s film, the rift between Hitch and Vera Miles (Jessica Biel) is given little more than lip service, while Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) is Hitch’s most adoring and forgiving confidante. I’m not suggesting that “Hitchock” needed to be as grim as “The Girl,” but its best picture chances would have improved with more of that sharpness and higher sense of stakes.

Still, Mirren and Hopkins are sure to join Daniel Day-Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones and Sally Margaret Field in the awards discussion for thesps, and it’s not unlikely that four of those would form this year’s matched set of Oscar winners for acting.

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