“The Girl” (2012)
by A.J. Hakari
If last fall’s Hitchcock handled the mythic director with kid gloves, then The Girl gives him a ruthless beating. In any case, neither film is as complex as they’d like to be, although the latter has the benefit of being closer to “the truth.” Beneath the darkly jolly image that Alfred Hitchcock projected in the media was the soul of what could be a very cold taskmaster, one with an obsessiveness driving him to push his actors to exhausting lengths if it meant getting a great shot. The Girl aims to explore this aspect of Hitch’s personality and, especially, how he viewed his leading ladies, though it eventually becomes less of a shocking character study and more of a simplistic rundown of sleazy stuff he may or may not have done.
It’s the early 1960s, and Alfred Hitchcock (Toby Jones) is on top of the world. His Psycho gamble paid off handsomely, further cementing his status as the cinema’s true Master of Suspense. Hitchcock’s sure that he’s found his next hit in a little project called The Birds, but rather than cast a big-name starlet in the main role, he turns to lovely model Tippi Hedren (Sienna Miller) to fill it instead. Initially, Hedren finds herself overwhelmed by this big break, eager to make a good impression and learn from the patron saint of thrillers. But as filming begins, Tippi becomes wise to Hitchcock’s fascination with her, which soon takes the form of sexual advances. Tippi rejects him, but as she comes to learn, Hitch has taken great pains to ensure that she’s been left with nowhere to run.
I’m not opposed to a movie like The Girl, over which several of Hitchcock’s admirers have gotten up in arms. I love the man’s pictures, but I’m also aware of his tendency to demand the most out of his performers and cast them off to the side just as quickly. Just how deeply this treatment ran is a subject well worth exploring, but The Girl doesn’t really do anything interesting with it. While it’s not the cheap and lurid tabloid show I feared it would be, its focus isn’t trained on Hitchcock’s psychology as much as it is on casting him as the biggest lech in the world. The Girl is very much on Tippi Hedren’s side, being based on her accounts of him coming onto her and kneecapping her career after turning him down. Whether or not this truly happened is one thing, but a premise hinged on such an enigmatic figure doing horrible things to a woman just because does not a gripping narrative make.
The Girl wants you to feel uncomfortable, which it accomplishes and then some, but just recounting the misery through which Hitchcock put Hedren is its only asset. We see her fight back, refuse to play victim, and be told that she’s not the first actress this has happened to, but in the end, the whole thing is awfully shallow. The very few moments we see the events from Hitchcock’s perspective seem to be making excuses for his actions instead of helping us understand where they come from, and while the real-life Hedren said that she learned much from working with the man, all you glean from this story is that he was a creep, and that’s that. The script’s lightweight treatment of such heavy subject matter does a disservice to how otherwise fantastic the performances are; Jones’s Hitchcock is absolutely uncanny, Miller’s Hedren is effectively wounded, and though her lack of screen time is criminal, Imelda Staunton is low-key and heartbreaking as Hitch’s wife, Alma.
The Girl features some top-notch acting, but an inescapable cloud of “That’s it?” looms well beyond the ending credits. While more willing than the mostly light-hearted Hitchcock to acknowledge the director’s dark side, there’s little substance around to balance out the movie’s bitter tone. The Girl is blunt, uncompromising, and not any damn good.