A love story about one of the most influential filmmakers of the last century, Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) and his wife and partner Alma Reville (Helen Mirren). The film takes place during the making of Hitchcock’s seminal movie, Psycho.

Dial M for Mediocre.

This snapshot of a relatively small part of Alfred Hitchcock’s life and career yields an entirely likeable if rather workmanlike drama that shifts between engaging honesty and eye-rolling sentimentality. Highlighted by two strong leads and solid support work but hamstrung by a low-budget sense of period and some soapy dramatics, Sacha Gervasi’s film offers only fleeting pleasures for those keen to see how Psycho was made. Instead, it’s mostly concerned with the marital discord brought on by the great director’s insecurities.

Hitchcock seems very set-bound, with most shots either framed as close-ups or mid-shots

As Alfred Hitchcock, Anthony Hopkins walks a tightrope between an overly familiar, heavily-caked caricature and an artist struggling with a psyche that both infuses his work and threatens his personal life. In modern parlance, the portly Brit is a 'dirty perve’; he peers through holes in his office to watch his stars Janet Leigh (Scarlet Johansson) and Vera Miles (a terrific Jessica Biel) disrobe. As has been well documented, he is easily swayed by the physical charms of the starlets he employs. Only towards the end of the film, when he confesses to Miles his regret over their failed collaboration, do we see Hitchcock as a man more fully aware of his shortcomings.

Helen Mirren more fully fleshes out her role as Hitchcock’s wife and professional confidante, Alma Reville, mainly because she’s unencumbered by audience preconception. The pressure that the self-financing Psycho had upon their marriage, fuelled by the director’s jealous fantasies concerning the blossoming professional relationship of his wife and the charming gadfly Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), provides the film’s emotional core.

It’s difficult to draw a thematic line between Hitchcock, Gervasi’s feature-length fictional film debut, and his last work, the wonderful documentary Anvil: The Story of Anvil. Technically, he seemed far more at ease with the hand-held, here-and-now intimacy and immediacy of the doco format than he does with the daunting task of creating specific time-period realism. One is left yearning for a more lushly cinematic treatment of the setting. Hitchcock seems very set-bound, with most shots either framed as close-ups or mid-shots, robbing the film of any elegant depth of focus or displays of rich production design.

There is joy to be had in Hitchcock’s run-ins with Paramount boss Barney Balaban (Richard Portnow) and the infamous MPAA head and hardcore Episcopalian do-gooder, Geoffrey Shurlock (Kurtwood Smith). Sorely underserved is James D’Arcy, who gives a spot-on but all-too-brief rendition of Anthony Perkins. Similarly, the casting of solid character players such as Ralph Macchio (who gets one scene as screenwriter Joseph Stefano), Wallace Langham (as Saul Bass) and Paul Schackman (as Bernard Herrmann) is not fully honoured, as many have next to no dialogue.

Gervasi and his scriptwriter John J. McLaughlin (who based his script on John Rebello’s iconic behind-the-scenes account, Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho) display a modicum of vision in their employ of the ghost of notorious serial killer Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), the real-life murderer on which Norman Bates was based, as a sort of Jiminy Cricket-like voice fuelling both Hitchcock’s creativity and subconscious instability. Topping the film with Hitchcock addressing the audience directly, ala his TV series intros, is a cute idea but only highlights the film’s overall tweeness.

The film’s arthouse distribution pattern may prove to be its undoing; Gervasi has crafted a palatable, mainstream-friendly work that those seeking deeper insight may find it too, well, bloodless.

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1 hour 39 min
In Cinemas 10 January 2013,