The Girl debuts tonight on HBO at 9 p.m. Eastern.
Portraying Alfred Hitchcock presents some unique challenges for an actor, as the director had such a finely wrought persona that it can be difficult to delineate where the myth ends and the man begins. In the hosting role on Alfred Hitchcock Presents that made Hitchcock one of the most famous filmmakers in the world—what other director can be recognized by his or her silhouette alone?—Hitchcock delighted in droll self-parody. Hitchcock was an intuitive genius at branding who found the role of a lifetime in his “Master of Suspense” image as a paradoxically deadpan ham, a proper English gentleman with a morbid sense of irony who viewed the foibles of humanity as if they were an inferior species.
In The Girl, an HBO television movie about Hitchcock’s tormented Svengali relationship with Tippi Hedren, Toby Jones plays Hitchcock as a man who tries to live his life as deliberately as he makes his films. Every bawdy limerick and elegantly delivered bit of direction feels scripted and rehearsed; his movements and gestures feel storyboarded. As Hitchcock, Jones’ face is a stoic mask betraying almost nothing until ugly emotions become too overpowering to suppress and come rushing up to the actor’s glowering surface.
Over the course of The Girl, a distinct reversal occurs and a man who prides himself on being in complete control of himself and the world he creates in his films loses control of his emotions, becoming a victim of tawdry desire. The great director’s studied aloofness devolves into squirmy, desperate neediness as he obsesses about a prize he can never hope to acquire.
Sienna Miller plays the object of Jones’ desire, a gorgeous and magnetic actress/model plucked from semi-obscurity to play the lead role in The Birds, Hitchcock's much buzzed-about follow-up to Psycho. The filmmaker instantly fixates on his new find as his erotic and romantic ideal: an unapproachable blonde whose chilly exterior masks fiery passion underneath.
Hitchcock initially cuts a paternalistic figure and Hedren smilingly endures his penchant for reciting racy poetry and pushing martinis and champagne on her as the cost of scoring a career-making role in a major film. But when lascivious glances and ambiguous come-ons give way to a full-on sexual advance, Hedren draws a hard line that forever alienates her from her professional benefactor.
Hedren’s rejection of her director’s sexual overtures kicks off a full-blown war of wills as Hitchcock does everything in his power to make his protégé’s life unbearable. The torment the director heaps on his unfortunate charge is physical as well as emotional. He suddenly seems less concerned with making a good movie than in putting his lead actress in harm’s way as much as possible, even if that means having her be attacked by actual birds in take after take after take.
The Girl excels during early scenes that deconstruct a filmmaking process that’s laborious and painstaking and bizarre under the best of circumstances, but grows sinister and bewildering when revenge, jealousy, and bitterness enter the picture. The rigors of filmmaking provide an unbeatable vehicle for acting out ugly personal grudges under the guise of realizing an uncompromising and meticulous vision, but it isn’t long until Hitchcock’s colleagues to realize that personal anger fuels the mistreatment of Hedren more than anything else.
Hitchcock is so unnecessarily cruel to Hedren during the filming of The Birds that when she’s given the lead in his next film, Marnie, it feels less like a reward than a punishment and a challenge. The very quality that draws the director to the actress—her steely unflappability—is also what torments him about her. If he cannot possess her sexually, Hitchcock seems intent on breaking her will.
HBO films aren’t written or directed so much as they’re handsomely mounted.The Girl is no different. It looks gorgeous, with lush production values and gorgeous cinematography, but there’s a strange inertness at the film’s core. Once the essential dynamic is established—Hitchock punishes Hedren for rejecting him yet Hedren must maintain an exhausting, demanding and grueling professional relationship with him all the same—all that’s left is for Hitchcock to push Hedren to her breaking point as his sexual overtures grow more overt and desperate.
As with his star-making turn as Truman Capote, Jones disappears into the walrus-like flesh of the real-life cultural icon he’s playing, but Miller is stuck playing a single note of steadfast in the face of unconscionable abuse. Jones delivers a powerful performance, as does Imelda Staunton as Hitchcock’s long-suffering wife/right-hand woman, but the film is hampered by a strange lack of chemistry and tension between Jones and Miller.
It’s tempting to imagine what someone like Brian De Palma or Atom Egoyan might have done with the film’s juicy themes of voyeurism, exhibitionism, filmmaking, sadism, and psychosexual obsession, but director Julian Jarrold makes the film a typical HBO affair: gorgeous and well-acted but curiously empty. The Girl fatally lacks a strong take on its story, though Hitchcock himself might have treasured the irony that a film about the ultimate auteur would be undone by the dearth of a strong authorial voice behind the camera.