Film Reviews

Hitchcock & Sightseers

Published January 12, 2013

Last year the film industry reflected on itself in My Week with Marilyn, this week we have Hitchcock. It’s pure Hollywood navel-gazing when directors make movies about other directors, in which the stars of the past are played by the stars of today – but it’s weirdly irresistible.  It was a real test of Michelle Williams’s abilities to front up as Marilyn Monroe and make a such a good fist of it, despite the obvious physical differences. It can’t be said that Anthony Hopkins is quite so convincing in the role of Alfred Hitchcock.
We know Hopkins is a pro, but in the course of their careers all actors get parts that seem completely wrong. In the case of Richard Burton, for instance, almost every part in his later years was a disaster. Trotsky? Father Lamont in Exorcist II? Hopkins hasn’t clocked up so many obvious turkeys although his 1996 rendition of Pablo Picasso was even harder to take than his Hitchcock.
All made-up and padded up, Hopkins still bears little resemblance to the portly Master of Suspense. The problem is that Hitchcock’s public image was so well-known through his regular appearances on the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV program it is hard to shake off one’s idea of the man himself. It was easier for John Hurt to portray director, James Whale, in Gods and Monsters (1998) – another disappointing bio pic – because few people knew anything about Whale’s appearance or personality.
Hitchcock’s very public image was also a masterful self-invention. Behind that deadpan, sardonic façade he was a mass of insecurities, obsessions and phobias.
Read the biographies by Patrick McGilligan or Donald Spoto, and the full complexity of Hitchcock’s personality begins to emerge. He was very far from being a jolly fat man, while his mischievous sense of humour showed distinct traces of sadism. His relationship with his wife, Alma Reville, was one of utter dependency, his fantasy life bound up with a series of leading ladies.
Beyond all this, Hitchcock was one of the most brilliant directors ever, with an ability to fashion films of psychological insight and formal inventiveness from sheer pulp. When asked that inevitable question: “What’s your favourite movie?” I find it hard to go beyond Vertigo (1958) – a pathetically orthodox choice, judging by the annual Sight and Sound ratings, where the film occupies the all-time number one position.
Vertigo is a Gesamtkunstwerk in the guise of a thriller, but films such as Psycho, North by Northwest, and the second version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, are also filled with remarkable innovations.
If you haven’t already guessed, this means Hitchcock is a difficult subject for a relatively inexperienced director such as Sacha Gervasi. There is an unspoken expectation that a bio pic about this towering figure needs to echo something of Hitchcock’s own daring and ingenuity. Instead, we have a competent, watchable production that never gets beyond the level of a good quality tele-movie.
The story centres on a small part of Hitchcock’s life when he was determined to make the film Psycho (1960) in defiance of studio executives who predicted doom and disaster. At the same time, his wife, Alma (Helen Mirren), was developing a crush on scriptwriter, Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston). In order to finance the movie the Hitchcocks had to draw on their own funds, meaning they could not afford a flop. Already under pressure, Hitchcock was tortured by the thought he might lose his wife and professional mainstay, while struggling to deal with the many problems thrown up by the project.
It’s no secret that Psycho went on to be Hitchcock’s greatest box office triumph, aided by a proactive marketing campaign that created waves of tremulous anticipation among viewers. This brilliant conclusion is bitten off at the end of a film which spends most of its time in soap opera territory.
One of the curiosities of Hitchcock is to watch Scarlett Johansson playing Janet Leigh, James D’Arcy as Anthony Perkins and Jessica Biel as Vera Miles, while Toni Collette has a small role as Hitchcock’s secretary, Peggy. Even though I could happily watch Scarlett Johansson doing almost anything for an hour-and-a-half, none of these portrayals are especially compelling. It’s a familiar story: you can’t turn in a dazzling performance when the script and overall production values are mediocre.
There is a fascinating story to be gleaned from the biography of Alfred Hitchcock, but this movie barely scrapes the surface. We see an artist of undeniable genius brought to the screen by a tradesman. It’s like reading an episode from the life of Balzac, as written by Bryce Courtney.
Hitchcock might have enjoyed Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers, for its mixture of droll humour and cold-blooded murder. The film is almost a new genre, or at least an original mix of genres, combining British working class comedy with a road movie and a serial killer theme. It’s funny in that sad, awful way we know from Mike Leigh’s films, where the characters and their circumstances are so sordid one laughs as a relief from cringing. The music, including two versions of Tainted Love and two versions of Donovan’s Season of the Witch, adds to the prevailing sense of dislocation.
In a classic road movie characters drive from place to place, having encounters that lead to a progressive form of self-discovery. Sightseers is a ghastly parody of this, as the protagonists only continue to grow less self-aware until perhaps the very last scene.
As for the serial killer motif, it’s the same as for Bad Lands (1973) or Natural Born Killers (1994) where a couple go on a murder spree, as if their love makes them arbiters of life and death. The difference is that Chris (Steve Oram) and Tina (Alice Lowe), are not on a rampage in the American mid-west, but towing a caravan around some of the tackiest tourist sites in Britain.
The film begins with Tina planning to leave on a caravan holiday with her new boyfriend, against the wishes of her miserable, domineering mother, Carol (Eileen Davies). Mum is a memorable screen monster who sits groaning loudly, blames Tina for the accidental death of the family dog, and does everything she can to prevent the holiday.
It’s only after Tina and Chris are on the road, and have reached the first stop on their itinerary – the Crich Tramway Museum in Derbyshire – that the story leaves the realm of kitchen sink comedy and sets sail for the dark side. Any thoughts of Carry on Camping or Mike Leigh’s Nuts in May, are forgotten. Each new stop on their caravan odyssey will result in another murder, as they wind their way north.
Although there is a vague rationale for every act of violence – a hatred of smug superiority, class revenge, jealousy – the offences are so trifling that the retribution can only be classed as psychopathic. It is soon apparent that Chris is eaten up with simmering resentment for anyone who has something he doesn’t have. Like so many people who lead boring lives, he’s thinking of writing a book, although he hasn’t got a subject yet. “Just making inroads into my own mind and taking notes as I go,” he tells Tina, who is given the job as Muse.
When they impose themselves on fellow campers, Ian and Janice, and find that Ian is a writer at work on hs third book, Chris goes into a malevolent sulk. It is a cosmic injustice that this pompous prick should be a published writer, or have such a nice camera, or such a cute dog.
Then there is the toffy-nosed hiker who tells Tina she has to dispose of the dog poo their new pooch has left at a heritage site. Another capital offence.
The victims are unappealing characters but Chris and Tina are truly sinister. In movies we are so accustomed to feeling sympathy for the ‘little people’ pushed too far by a cruel society, that it comes as a shock to realise how unsympathetic they are. Chris is a typical bloke who likes gadgets and getting drunk. Tina seeks her satisfaction in knick-knacks, souvenirs and suburban kitsch. She is more in tune with dogs than human beings.
Their sex life is equally tawdry. In one scene, Tina lays out a pair of crotchless knickers that she has crocheted herself. Chris uses his appropriated camera to film their rutting.
Although Chris has no sympathy for his victims, he is full of thoughts of hs own bad fortune. After the first murder he complains: “He’s ruined the tram museum for me.” When Tina gets in on the act and starts her own murder spree, Chris is irritated. “You ruined that restaurant for me.”
Tina rationalises Chris’s murders with pop psychology: “It’s just about personal empowerment and thinking outside the box.” It even reduces carbon emissions.
The truly unnerving aspect of Wheately’s film is that he portrays Chris and Tina as average people who take genuine delight in visiting attractions such as the Tram Museum, the Blue John Cavern, and the Keswick Pencil Museum, while staying at camping sites. The implication is that they are the natural offspring of this version of Little England: an inward-looking land, satisfied with its own homely diversions; a society that has raised mediocrity to the status of a cultural ideal.
Chris and Tina are not extraordinary villains, they are just like everybody else – the “common people” in the Pulp song who drink and dance and screw because there’s nothing else to do. Wheatley is suggesting that in a nation of shop-keepers there’s a killer inside every one.

Hitchcock, USA, rated M, 98 mins
Sightseers, UK, rated MA, 88 mins
Published by the Australian Financial Review, January 12, 2013