Two facts are already well known: Alfred Hitchcock loved casting cool blondes in his films, and Tippi Hedren was plucked from obscurity to star in two of them, “The Birds” and “Marnie.” The director’s obsession with, and abuse of, that particular leading lady provides the basis for “The Girl,” an intoxicating HBO/BBC collaboration anchored by splendid performances from Toby Jones and Sienna Miller. Now 82, Hedren has publicly endorsed this account, and even with dramatic embellishment, it’s a story likely to leave anyone weaned on the Hitchcock filmography feeling — pardon the expression — spellbound.
If there’s a serious flaw in “The Girl” — and one would certainly be hard-pressed to find one in Miller’s resemblance to the ravishing Hedren, or Jones’ uncanny replication of Hitchcock’s voice and mannerisms — it’s only in the 91-minute movie being almost too economical. A bit more backstory about the key players, given the strength of these characterizations, would only have enriched the experience.
Principally a model, Hedren is as surprised as anyone to be contacted by Hitchcock, the assumption being the real stars of “The Birds” will be adorned in feathers, not fashion. At first, his behavior is slightly odd — the occasional suggestive limerick — but nothing to truly alarm her. Besides, what an opportunity to land a role sought by “every actress on the planet.”
Once she’s cast, though Hitchcock grows more daring, including a fumbling pass, followed by a grueling five-day shoot of the sequence where Hedren’s character gets attacked in the attic, apparent punishment for rebuffing his advances. (Scenes from the film’s production, mounted here in South Africa, are meticulously re-created.)
Director Julian Jarrold (“Kinky Boots”) and writer Gwyneth Hughes, working from a book by Donald Spoto, use Hitchcock’s drunken confessions and asides by his wife, Alma (Imelda Staunton) — who seems almost complicit in the tawdry ordeal — as well as his loyal secretary (“Downton Abbey’s” Penelope Wilton) to address some of the fundamental questions. After all, many Hitchcock stars were beautiful; what prompted him to single out Hedren for such extreme mistreatment?
Whatever the motivation, the way the movie unfolds is fascinating, featuring the best work of Miller’s career, and Jones so inhabiting Hitchcock — trapped within his grotesque frame — as to quickly get past impersonation to a darker portrayal of genius.
The technical achievements also can’t be overstated, including Nadine Prigge’s makeup design, vague echoes of Bernard Herrmann in Philip Miller’s score and the way John Pardue’s camera bores in on the director as he gazes, longingly and pathetically, at Hedren.
Granted, a few snippets of dialogue feel a little too pat — more perfect than one suspects people conjure under duress — and the closing postscript perhaps overreaches in implying a link between the film’s events and the trajectory of Hitchcock’s career thereafter. Some might also wince (as a New York Times interview with Hedren seemed to) at maligning a cinematic giant who’s been dead more than 30 years, given the rightful admiration of the director’s work.
Nevertheless, the subject matter will be almost irresistible to a core of movie lovers, while falling into a realm perfectly suited to HBO, where the prestige associated with a small but promotable movie isn’t burdened by any of the box office concerns that will face “Hitchcock,” another film about the director, due later this year.
Perhaps foremost, “The Girl” ultimately contains a resonant theme — how one woman maintained her dignity while faced with such an abuse of power. Seen that way, this snapshot of cinematic history offers much more than a mere “Birds”-eye-view.