TV Review: ‘The Girl’

HBO Film examines Hitchcock's obsession with Tippi Hedren

In the new HBO film The Girl, a troubled figure of authority plays Pygmalion with a vulnerable young woman and drives them both to the brink of madness. Sound familiar?

Toby Jones as Alfred Hitchcock
In detailing Alfred Hitchcock’s tormented relationship with two-time leading lady Tippi Hedren, director Julian Jarrold (Red Riding: 1974) and screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes implicitly propose – via plotting, theme, and music cue – that Hitchcock took the fiction of 1958’s Vertigo and turned it into ugly reality with his fixation on Hedren.

Sienna Miller plays Hedren, the titular “Girl” (which is what the director dismissively called his lead actresses). The film almost exclusively takes her perspective, and certainly takes her side, as she goes from unknown model to Hitch’s hand-picked leading lady. Although not quite a a look-alike for the real thing, Miller gets the gist of Hedren. She subtly enacts her transformation from vivacious to porcelain-still, as unnervingly art-directed by Hitchcock (played by Toby Jones, under heavy prosthetics): how he revamped her wardrobe down to the very size of her pearls, lightened her natural blond to an icier shade, and coached her to drop her voice to a huskier pitch.

The script is sourced from Hitchcock historian Donald Spoto’s book Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies, which drew from interviews with Hedren about her difficulties on the sets of The Birds and Marnie. Curiously, in their dramatization of the nightmarish attic shoot – in which Hedren had to endure five straight days in a cage with flapping birds, and after which production had to be shut down while the near-catatonic actress recovered – the filmmakers leave out what is perhaps the most harrowing detail – that on the last day, crew members (on Hitchcock’s order) actually tied the birds’ legs to Hedren’s coat, making escape impossible for either the agitated actress or the just-as-agitated birds. It’s an obvious and shudder-inducing mirror for the actress’ own unbreakable attachment (via a seven-year contract) to her oppressor, but the film doesn’t capitalize on the metaphor.

Sienna Miller as Tippi Hedren

Hedren recovered and went back to work with Hitchcock on a second picture, Marnie – and it’s here that The Girl becomes more psychologically probing, after a surface-shiny first half. Marnie is infamous for having Sean Connery play a husband who rapes his wife, a sexual trauma survivor, as a supposed solution to her frigidness. The Girl (and some critics) assert that Marnie perfectly parallels Hitch’s perception of his and Hedren’s relationship, in which Hitch reframes Hedren’s rejection of him as “frigidness.”

This second half also explores more (but not enough) the unimaginable position Hitchcock’s wife and creative partner, Alma (Imelda Staunton), is put in, witnessing her husband’s increasing obsession and the wrecking effect it has on its target. In a late scene rippling with nuance and nine kinds of awkwardness, Alma apologizes to Tippi for her husband’s behavior, but she also refuses Tippi’s plea that she intercede. Staunton makes palpable her double mortification: embarrassment at her husband’s creepy behavior, humiliation at having to sympathize with the woman her husband so baldly prefers.

From an initial ickiness that metastasizes into full-bore sexual obsession, Hitchcock’s actions drive all in The Girl, but attempts at getting at his inner life are delayed and not terribly revelatory. (Hitch’s cry, spittling-drunk, that he is “corpulent, celibate, impotent” is about as close as the film toes at trying to crack the nut.) Jones, an able enough mimic, seems to have been directed to present Hitchcock at his toadiest, and there’s little evidence here of the director’s wit or genius.

The film’s ambition – to personalize and empathize with “The Girl” – is not an unworthy one, and by presenting the material as a survivor’s story – in which Hedren undergoes a trial by fire and emerges scorched but not savaged – the film completes a conventionally satisfying arc. And yet: What kind of character study leaves its most fascinating head case unexplored?

The Girl premieres Saturday, Oct. 20, 8pm, on HBO.

For more, see the Chronicle's Hitchcock Week essays:

Monday: Marc Savlov on Family Plot and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Tuesday: Richard Whittaker on The 39 Steps.

Wednesday: Margaret Moser on The Birds and Rebecca.

Thursday: Aleksander Chan on Vertigo and Rear Window.

Friday: Marjorie Baumgarten on The Trouble With Harry.

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Alfred Hitchcock, The Girl, Tippi Hedren, Toby Jones, Sienna Miller, Imelda Staunton, The Birds, Vertigo, Julian Jarrod, Gwyneth Hughes, Marnie

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