The Girl, which premiered on HBO on Saturday night, played out like a bad Alfred Hitchcock movie — like, for example and in an unfortunate coincidence, Marnie, one of the films that’s prominent in The Girl. The Girl is a movie with an axe that is ground with less subtlety than anything Hitchcock himself ever made: It wants to humiliate the director of such great movies as Vertigo and Psycho, while adding luster to the image of actress Tippi Hedren. Any production with an agenda like this was bound to be jarringly didactic, a surprisingly crucial flaw for a TV-movie with such talented people in front of and behind the camera.
Toby Jones, so amazing as Truman Capote in 2006’s Infamous, nearly equaled that feat of impersonation playing Hitchcock in The Girl. And Sienna Miller was this movie’s title character, a “girl” in her early 30s whom the director snatched from obscurity, and Miller plays Hedren with skillful woodenness — it’s an excellent performance, portraying a mediocre actress so well.
The plot of The Girl is an audience-divider: Anyone familiar with Hitchcock’s work doubtless knew every beat of this story, while newcomers to his work may have found it a glossy example of a TV-movie sub-genre: the didactic lesson-film. Screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes was posed with such a daunting challenge, it’s a wonder she even attempted this. But, working mostly from Donald Spoto’s book Spellbound By Beauty, Hughes, an excellent writer (Five Days), did her best. The tale The Girl tells is fundamentally simple and too simplistic: It depicted a control-freak director who falls for a beautiful woman, promises her stardom, preys upon her financial insecurity, makes a pass at her, is rejected, and submits her to cruel punishments in the guise of control-freaky directing methods.
Thus, in casting Hedren as the lead in the 1963 film The Birds, we see the married Hitchcock conduct a pursed-lower-lip courtship of his star off-camera. About a half-hour in, he made a lurch for her in a car, and about a half-hour after that, begs her with this oh-so-romantic line: “Touch me — no one can see us.” This is not the way I want to remember the man who made Rear Window and Strangers on a Train, but Toby Jones is so good as Hitchcock, well, now it’s lodged in my brain.
Hedren’s reactions are both what you’d expect — she’s repulsed — and admirably brave: There probably weren’t many women during that time who could have withstood Hitchcock’s treatment of her with such dignity. One of the key sequences in The Girl was the filming of a bird attack upon Hedren’s character, Melanie Daniels. By this time, Hitchcock is all spurned spite, so instead of mechanical or prop birds, as he’d been using up to that point, he sequesters Hedren and a bunch of real birds in a fenced-off-section of the set and allowed them to swarm and peck at her for hours. If it wasn’t true, you’d have a hard time believing anyone could get away with this, but Hitchcock did. Then when filming was completed, he refused to allow the distraught Hedren out of her contract, and she had to make Marnie with him, which was probably the psychological equivalent of being pecked to death by birds.
Director Julian Jerrold, another sizable talent — Kinky Boots, Red Riding, Appropriate Adult — kept things moving, but other than little incidental curiosities, such as the scenes involving Hitchcock’s very long-suffering wife, Alma (the terrific Imelda Staunton), there’s little forward momentum in The Girl. It’s just the dramatization of one humiliation after another.
You could say that that bottom line is that Hitchcock got a very good movie out of all this: The Birds holds up as fine suspense. And he got a very mediocre movie out of all this as well. Contrary to a note at the end of The Girl, Marnie is not “hailed as Hitchcock’s final masterpiece” by anyone other than fevered auteurists.
I’m glad Hedren seems to have emerged from her Hitchcock experience with her sanity and dignity intact, even if he pretty much ruined her movie career. But that’s not something that’s dealt with in The Girl. Instead, The Girl concentrated on the Birds and Marnie period of Hitchcock’s career, and told us story we know all too well: Sometimes extremely talented people are rotten, unhappy, pathetic human beings.