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Friday, November 30, 2012 - Page updated at 02:30 p.m.

‘Hitchcock’ is surprisingly sunny

By Moira Macdonald
Seattle Times movie critic

Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” is a tight, chilling little piece of terror filmed in stark black and white and scored with violins that shriek as if they’re being plucked by knives. Sacha Gervasi’s “Hitchcock,” about the director during the time of the making of “Psycho,” is by contrast an oddly sunny piece of work, filmed in bright color and filled with sly wit. At heart, it’s as much a portrait of a marriage as the story of a movie, and though its insights often feel less than profound, it’s often a pleasure to watch. Just seeing Hitch (Anthony Hopkins) solemnly weeding alongside wife Alma (Helen Mirren) — in dark suit, tie and straw garden hat — is strangely jolly; we’re not used to imagining this larger-than-life (in every sense) character in everyday settings.

“Hitchcock” works best when presenting the day-to-dayness of the Hitchcock marriage, shown as a troubled yet enduring merger of two minds. Alma (who met Alfred on a film set in London in the 1920s) was a film editor and often uncredited screenwriter who was Hitch’s most trusted adviser; by the late ’50s, when the action of “Hitchcock” begins, they seem set in a long-established pattern. “So what do you think?,” she asks him, parading in a sleek dress as he lounges in the tub (with a glass of red wine, no less). “Very presentable,” is the reply; she’s disappointed, and you sense this exchange is frequent. He discusses his work with her, she gives key suggestions (why not kill off the heroine early in “Psycho,” she suggests), but their collaboration isn’t quite made-in-Hollywood — he’s obsessed with blond actresses and she, stopping by the studio, stands sadly by a “Closed Set” sign.

It’s not exactly a perfect marriage, but Hopkins and Mirren create a funny, exasperated chemistry. Though Hopkins isn’t quite a dead ringer for the filmmaker (this isn’t a magical Daniel Day-Lewis/Lincoln type of transformation; Hopkins just looks like somebody who looks a lot like Hitchcock), he’s got the basso drawl of a voice down nicely, and the vaguely sinister presence. (Can you imagine waking up to find Alfred Hitchcock standing by your bed, making pronouncements? This was apparently a regular thing for Alma, who handles it with aplomb.) Mirren hurries in and out of her scenes, getting a late subplot that doesn’t really register; but she does deliver a fine speech about being the invisible wife of a genius, so movingly done that you wish this film were called “Alma.”

Elsewhere, Scarlett Johansson uncannily channels the warmth and charm of Janet Leigh, and James D’Arcy nails the eerie boyishness of Anthony Perkins. Gervasi and screenwriter John J. McLaughlin drag in some armchair psychoanalysis of Hitch that doesn’t add much to our understanding and slows the film down in places. (We see Ed Gein, the real-life murderer who inspired the “Psycho” story, having imaginary conversations with the filmmaker.) But when Mirren’s biting a piece of toast like she’s chopping off its head, or Hopkins says “Good eeeevening” in perfect Hitch cadence, “Hitchcock” delivers.

Moira Macdonald: mmacdonald@seattletimes.com or 206-464-2725