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“Hitchcock” and “Anna Karenina”: The Horror!

November 27, 2012

As a well-known Anglophobe, I engaged in some immersion therapy by subjecting myself to a double feature of veddy British—yet veddy different—films from U.K.-born directors and with overwhelmingly English casts: Sacha Gervasi’s biopic Hitchcock and Joe Wright’s Anglicized adaptation of Anna Karenina. Only one of them scared me—and it might not be the one you’d expect.

Despite my oft-stated claim that Anthony Hopkins is the world’s most overrated actor (see Thor or You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger—or better yet, don’t), the Welshman triumphs over the giant rubber head he’s forced to wear in an attempt to resemble the Master of Suspense and delivers his best performance since Nixon. Now that guy was terrifying. He’s matched every waddle-step of the way by Helen Mirren as his better-in-every-way half Alma. Oscar nominations for both seem assured, unless Hopkins’ recent anti-ass-kissing tirade alienates Academy voters.

Like this year’s presidential profiles in courage Lincoln and Hyde Park on Hudson, Hitchcock functions as a biopic in microcosm, choosing to focus on one brief period in its subject’s career—his battle to make Psycho and remain relevant as an artist in his (and the) 60s—as a way of illustrating the larger themes of his life. For the most part, it works. Gervasi, whose sole previous directing credit was the heavy-metal documentary Anvil: The Story of Anvil, lays on one too many framing devices, bookending the film wittily with an Alfred Hitchcock Presents-like intro and epilogue but tiresomely returning over and over to dreamlike scenes of Hitch interacting with Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), the real-life murderous inspiration for Norman Bates.

Hitchcock may not be one of the year’s best films, but it’s one of my favorites—the behind-the-scenes details of the filmmaker’s interactions with stars Janet Leigh (a well-cast Scarlett Johansson), Vera Miles (Jessica Biel, in her strongest work ever, not that there’s much competition) and the barely closeted Anthony Perkins (James D’Arcy) are a movie lover’s dream. And Michael Stuhlbarg, who’s also in Lincoln, is a welcome presence as Hitch’s loyal agent (and future studio mogul) Lew Wasserman. And it’s a kick to see him working with screenwriter Joseph Stefano (Ralph Macchio!) and composer Bernard Hermann (Paul Schackman). Sadly, Wallace Langham’s turn as opening-titles designer Saul Bass mostly ended up on the cutting-room floor, but perhaps that’s apt, since Hitchcock himself was the king of the unkindest cut.

I wish someone had taken a butcher knife to Anna Karenina. Spoiler alert: Keira Knightley’s mad Russian throws herself in front of a train two hours into this 130-minute slog. I was ready to do the same an hour earlier. Tom Stoppard’s painfully precious screenplay and Wright’s all-wrong direction keep piling needless theatrical filagrees atop Leo Tolstoy’s fine original story. Knightley seems less like a deeply obsessed woman who risks everything to be with an allegedly dashing Count (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who distractingly resembles Jay Mohr wearing a Gene Wilder fright wig) than a schoolgirl suffering through her first crush. What a drama queen!

The only fun to be had while watching this movie is savoring the sweet justice of Jude Law playing Anna’s cuckolded husband, Alexei Karenin. Considering how his public dalliances humiliated ex-wife Sadie Frost, it seems turnabout is fair play, or all’s fair in love and war. Or War and Peace. Or somesuch.

Sadly, good actresses like Boardwalk Empire‘s Kelly Macdonald and Hyde Park‘s Olivia Williams get left on the sidelines while Wright and Knightley shoot the longest, most self-indulgent perfume commercial ever. Ironically, Anna Karenina stinks.

Did Anna Karenina make you psycho, too? Post a comment!

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