Every great artist has a muse. And according to this biopic Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins, fat-suited and face-altered thanks to some pretty convincing prosthetics) had two: his wife Alma Reville (a fierce, battle-ready Helen Mirren) and serial killer Ed Gein (Michael Wincott). Together, the iron-willed spouse and the damaged Gein form the perfect demented coach, one inspiring Hitchcock's horror masterpiece Psycho and the other punching up scripts, providing editing room decisions and keeping Hollywood's bottom-line-men out of the way of the Master of Suspense. One might have been a homicidal maniac, but it's unclear which would have won in a fight.
It's also unclear which Hitchcock we should believe in. Is he the lecherous, spurned, gross person who ruined Tippi Hedren's well-being in HBO's The Girl or the genius-voyeur with appetites he didn't always understand, one who treated his blondes with professional respect, even if it involved a little too much staring? Here, the way he dotes on Janet Leigh (a perky but no-nonsense Scarlett Johansson), as the plot explores the process of making Psycho, Hopkins' take on Hitch comes off more like a somewhat sad, yet harmless, high school teacher with unrequited crushes on his prettiest students.
But still kind of a weirdo. Although in real life Hitchcock and Reville produced one daughter in 1928 (never mentioned here) they're shown sleeping in separate twin beds in the same room like a couple in a 1950s sitcom. They lock themselves in an ongoing, passive-aggressive food standoff that causes secret director fridge binges complete with amplified eating noises on the soundtrack. Worst of all, they weather a simmering flirtation/almost-affair between Reville and screenwriter friend Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston). It's a comfortable kind of dysfunction, though, one that never gets in the way of moviemaking or signals anything as drastic as impending divorce. When they fall into marital spats, revealing problems that resemble the tips of icebergs (at one point she spits, "How would you really know what goes on between a man and a woman?" and you think, "Well maybe if you didn't sleep in separate beds...") it's just that -- a big, immobile block of coldness, not going anywhere just yet, if ever.
Weirdest thing of all? It's kind of sweet and conventional when all is said and done, a love story about people with problems who've just gotten used to each other, for better or worse, like a mildly perverse Two for the Road. It might, by today's standards, indict the man as a bit of a creeper, but the filmmaker's Peeping Tom habits, his control issues, his neuroses laid bare and his determination to happily destroy his audience's relationship to both horror films and showers are all swept up into a neat, admiring heap. Reville's guiding hand is shown steering him back from artistic irrelevance toward success and the comforts of their shared life -- even if that shared life involves one partner's regular discussions with the dour ghost of a deceased, skin-suit-making lunatic. Whatever makes your marriage work.