In 1962 England’s foremost director, Alfred Hitchcock, began the search for a leading lady to headline his most ambitious project to date – The Birds. The anticipated follow-up to Psycho demanded a cool blonde centre-screen but Hitchcock-muse Grace Kelly had already traded her ice queen crown for the real thing. The Girl recounts the unbelievable story of the girl who won the role and stole the heart, and mind, of Hitch.
An Alfred Hitchcock film is arguably as recognisable as his distinctive profile. The details of his private life are perhaps less widely known. Toby Jones wears Hitchcock’s familiar mannerisms with the ease of a man shrugging on an old winter coat and carries the burden of the great man’s bulk with panache. He guides us through the uncomfortable territory of Hitch’s obsession with Tippi Hedren with a captivating performance and, from the outset, Julian Jarrold’s The Girl impresses as a strikingly elegant piece of filmmaking.
Sienna Miller plays Tippi Hedren, the little-known model tasked with becoming the next Hitchcock Blonde. The foyer of Hitch’s office reproaches Tippi with pictures of Grace Kelly as the ingénue apprehensively awaits an audience with the great man. She believes herself to be in contention for a supporting role and cannot imagine the journey she is embarking upon. Hitch, for his part, is bewitched by Tippi – he sees her inexperience and naïveté as gifts – he has found a girl he can sculpt into a movie star. Into his movie star.
At lunch with Hitch and his pragmatic wife, Alma (Imelda Staunton), Tippi is moved to tears by his demonstration of faith as she realises she has been gifted the most coveted lead in showbiz. And we are granted a glimpse of burgeoning obsession as the first flicker of attraction gives way to something more insistent. A screen test establishes their future dynamic with Hitch blundering along the line between director and voyeur. In this moment Tippi retains the upper hand, though she is too overawed to see it, and the audience may still believe Hitch is simply a professional at work. Charmless but harmless.
By the time principle photography begins we are more unsettled, the great director has already begun to pick away at his blonde, disassembling her wardrobe, her carriage and character to rebuild her to his own design. As Tippi evolves, so does Hitch’s desire for her and he soon unleashes a clumsy, furious, wooing-assault which is excruciating to watch. Spitting dirty limericks instead of kind words, stalking her like prey and finally pouncing before horrified onlookers, he seems incapable of grace or love at all.
Hedren rebukes his advances but determines to persevere with the shoot – the once-in-a-lifetime break trumping her misgivings about the man behind the lens – but she has badly misjudged his character. The set becomes a coliseum where Hitch publically subjects her to a series of trials, ostensibly ‘surprises’ to enliven the film. Like the eponymous birds, each incident in isolation, each take, could be considered innocuous but he piles on the tension, the horror, through repetition until Tippi is bloodied and in a state of collapse.
In an early scene we see Hitch intertwine his arm with Tippi’s, to lock her in a toast, a toast to Tippi and “Alfie”. She is able to gently extract herself from his grasp and to laughingly reach out for his wife to join them. After her brutal on-set experience, however, the laughter is gone and she flees the lot in hysterics. Hitchcock’s long-suffering secretary, much like the stunned crew, speculates that she will never return. Yet Tippi is made of sterner stuff, or at least her fear is outmatched by her ambition, and at the film’s premiere she and Hitch accept their applause side-by-side. The great director and his Girl.
I am not a fan of Sienna Miller, I find her remarkably forgettable. In fact it took two years of relentless trivia about her personal life sloshing around the British media for her face to register at all. Alfred Hitchcock famously said that “Blondes make the best victims. They’re like virgin snow that shows up the bloody footprints.” The quote is even used to open The Girl. The peculiarly blank canvas quality Sienna Miller has works to equal effect. It is why she was so well cast as Edie Sedgwick in Factory Girl, and why she makes an impeccable Tippi Hedren. She has a good face which takes make-up well and she looks stunning in the tailored dresses and little suits Hitch insists that Tippi be seen in. She has an air of detachment which recalls the real Hedren so distinctly that one may easily buy into her performance.
Toby Jones by contrast is an actor I admire. His depiction of Truman Capote in Infamous led me to abandon the plans I had made to see, the higher profile, Capote altogether. With his turn in The Girl he has again elevated a biopic role to something far greater and utterly inhabited the man he portrays. I relished the doubt he left in my mind – even after Marnie, even after the creepy calls, even though I know better for goodness’ sake – the possibility that it was all in aid of harnessing true emotion for the sake of the films. Jones has taken part in some of the biggest movie franchises of recent years and his future as a character actor is undoubtedly secure. But with singular performances, exceptional performances, like this I hope we will continue to see him take the lead too. Thanks to Mr Jones and The Girl, I now have no desire to see the ‘other’ Hitchcock film at all!
The Girl is available on DVD NOW. Click here to purchase your copy.
Special features include an exclusive Behind-the-Scenes documentary.