Early on in The Girl, which probes the relationship between Alfred Hitchcock (Toby Jones) and his leading lady, Tippi Hedren (Sienna Miller), the esteemed director gives his screenwriter a piece of advice: The audience doesn't want a character they can identify with; they want glamour. That HBO's new film manages to heed Hitchcock's recommendation without being nearly as enjoyable as any of his films could be seen as a failing, but in fact, it's a deliberate and somewhat remarkable accomplishment. This is Hedren's film, told through her eyes, and in spite of all the glamorous costumes and set pieces, it succeeds at being a thoroughly harrowing exposé of Hollywood patriarchy run amok.
Dozens of self-aware filmmakers who view Hitchcock as a key influence have tried to extricate themselves from the Freudian psychosexual web that the director has come to symbolize. They aim to subvert his voyeuristic "male gaze" with experimental editing, or to confront the audience's complicity in on-screen violence by holding the camera steady on its painfully grotesque aftermath. Yet more often than not, such films are from a male perspective, and their underlying aesthetic pleasures betray that fact in spite of everything. The Girl certainly tries some of these techniques on for size, and it's no coincidence that the film begins with a close-up of two female eyes looking back into the camera, confronting the power of its gaze. But ultimately the movie takes a much clearer course of action to prevent audience complicity. By portraying Hedren's psychological abuse with factual detail and psychological accuracy, with generally invisible camerawork and a pragmatic style, director Julian Jarrold ensures that the film avoids sensationalized thrills.
Cinephiles might be compelled to watch for insights into how Hitchcock trained Hedren, who had no experience as an actress before being plucked from the New York modeling scene. During one rehearsal, he tells her to lower her voice, say her line without breathing, and "do nothing." The faithfully recreated behind-the-scenes takes, particularly the phone-booth and attic scenes from The Birds, may also draw attention from fans of the director's work. But while Hedren thanks Hitchcock initially for having received more education in three weeks than she would have had in three years of film school, The Girl is no academic exercise.
If the characters sometimes speak as though they're trying to determine the theme of the film, one can hardly blame them. The Girl succeeds as both a case study and a cautionary tale precisely because there's no clean-cut diagnosis or moral lesson. Hitchcock tells Hedren that her character goes to the attic alone "in the spirit of self-sacrifice," and that argument could also explain why the actress herself submits to five days of being mauled by live birds in retake after unnecessary retake, until she experiences nightmares and post-traumatic stress. In an earlier scene, Hedren remarks facetiously that as a woman, she can play guilt and masochism "standing on her head." And yet Hitchcock's assistant has another take on the dynamic, emphasizing Hedren's defiance and strength: "She makes him feel like he can't hurt her." Perhaps her show of strength is part of her masochism, serving to goad the director toward ever-escalating levels of hostility. A certain distance comes with such dichotomous characters, and like Hitchcock, we can't help but be lured in by her mask of courteous professionalism and elegance. The film ends with a recreation of the opening shot of Marnie, a close-up on a woman's purse that serves as a symbol of feminine mystery (and sexuality), as if to admit the puzzle can't be fully solved.
Hitchcock was also filled with contradictions, and Jones plays the character's romantic love for Hedren as achingly sincere in spite of everything. He professes to have no sense of humor, yet provokes laughter on set with his licentious mock-nursery rhymes, which take on a more ominous tone when directed at Hedren. He provides his leading lady with a lavish wardrobe, yet refuses to allow her to attend an awards ceremony where she'll be honored. He insults his wife cruelly yet proclaims to his assistant that he's "lost without her." Hitchcock's dichotomies, however, are more easily explained than Hedren's. The key to his character is on full display as he informs Hedren over lunch that she'll be playing the lead role; as the actress bursts into tears and showers him with unbridled affection and gratitude, a certain look crosses his face. It's something we might not expect from the master of horror and suspense: a brief and quiet expression of fear. The Girl doesn't aim to match Hitchcock's thrills or entertainment value, and its psychological insights are never truly cathartic. As a solidly well-measured portrait of a caged and ambitious young actress, however, it has a way of staying with you, especially the parts you'd rather erase.