Learning about great artists is always disappointing. Few of them are nice people, some are downright awful. And then there's Alfred Hitchcock.
As portrayed in "The Girl" (9 p.m. Saturday, HBO), the legendary English director was creepy, cruel and pathetic. The portrayal makes for a mildly flawed film that's sometimes compelling and often disturbing with an excellent performance at its center.
That performance isn't by "The Girl" of the title. It's by Toby Jones as Hitchcock. But let's talk plot first. The film begins in 1962, after the director has gotten acclaim for "Psycho," and is beginning to make "The Birds." With prompting from his wife Alma (Imelda Staunton), he casts Tippi Hedren (Sienna Miller), an ex-model with no acting experience. Tippi, grateful to have the confidence of someone of Hitchcock's stature, is brought to tears, and Hitch and Alma are too. It's the start of a beautiful relationship.
And then suddenly it isn't. Hitch works closely with Tippi to get the right performance, but what starts as coaching soon turns to sexual harassment and then psychological torture. He has a thing for blondes and Tippi, elegant, blonde and beautiful, is just to his liking. Hitchcock's loyal assistant Peggy (Penelope Wilton) tries to manage things between the star and her boss, but the director, spurned by Hedren, gets cruelly petulant. When he surprises her on the set by having her film with real birds, take after take, things get meta. You're watching a Hitchcockian scene of a Hitchcockian scene.
The film has a dreamlike quality and it doesn't judge; suddenly it almost seems as if Hitchcock wasn't being cruel, he was just enacting tough love, trying to get the best performance out of an unskilled performer. Perhaps that's why Tippi worked with him again taking the lead in "Marnie."
But we don't know why Tippi signs on again and that's the flaw in the film. Miller's Tippi isn't well-rounded; the script treats her as Hitchcock did, a cool, blonde vessel for his fantasies. Clearly Hitchcock was a powerful man, but once she made "The Birds," she certainly would have gotten other offers. Was she loyal to Hitchcock because he'd given her a break? Did she need Hitch as, in a way, he needed her? Was she ambitious, and if so, why not sleep with him? While Miller plays Tippi as a woman not exactly strong, but one determined to not lose, we just don't know what motivates her, what makes her tick.
Jones, on the other hand, has much to work with. He's a man with a vision and a lot of pain. He's a naughty boy who tells dirty limericks, and an old charming coot repeating the same funny stories. He's the needy man hurt by comments about his looks, willing to use his power to rectify the imbalance, and dependent on a wife he doesn't love romantically but without whom he can't fully function. Jones isn't as tall as the real Hitchcock and yet his skill makes him as large as the complicated director.
"The Girl" left me wanting to re-watch these classic Hitchcock films but now I'll see them through a different lens. I think that means "The Girl" did its work well. After all, Hitchcock made his films with many layers. That "The Girl" adds more is impressive.