“He wants to get inside me, in awful ways, to squeeze me out until there’s nothing left inside.” I suppose it’s helpful that Tippi Hedren (Sienna Miller) is so articulate—so poetic and so precise—when she describes her relationship with her director, Alfred Hitchcock (Toby Jones). But it’s also acutely disconcerting, that she is so able to maintain her self-awareness amid a series of abuses and threats during the two films she makes with him, The Birds and Marnie. You always knew there was something dreadful about these two movies—the aggressions against her, by all manner of fowl and Sean Connery—and HBO’s The Girl offers some detail (based on Donald Spoto’s Hitchock books, including Spellbound By Beauty: Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies (2008). In this version of Hitch (as he invites his new mentee to call him), he is calculating and also unnervingly out-of-control, admired and cruel. He torments Hedren on the set in front of everyone, has her endure attacks by real birds for five days in order to obtain the genuine terror on her face in the notorious Birds attic scene. He also leans in too close, pesters her with stories about cocks, invites her to touch his, paws her and bullies her, all, he says, to make her a great movie star. “There’s only so much I can teach you through kindness,” he explains.
She knows better, but she also finishes The Birds and then signs on for Marnie, believing her career is at stake. The HBO version, directed by Julian Jarrold (as opposed to HItchcock, directed by Sacha Gervasi, starring Anthony Hopkins, and the object of Weinstein’s latest Oscar campaign), makes extra clear what you’re supposed to think, as Hedren says it out loud: “I’ll make you so proud of me,” she says when he first casts her, “I’ll be putty in your hands.” Oh dear, you sigh. By the end of the film, when Hitchcock is lying to her yet again about his intentions, to turn her frosty no-talent into passion on screen, Hedren tells him he has it backwards: “You took a living breathing woman and you turned her into a statue.”
Such neat diagnosis hardly makes it necessary for the movie to include its own Hitchockian flourishes, in the Bernard Herrmannish score and lofty crane shots, in the emphasis on Hedren’s responses to her emotional and physical battering, her alternating collapsing and resisting. Hedren’s utter anguish takes up most of the film, though it offers a glimpse of Alma Hitchcock’s (Imelda Staunton) grim frustration and also Hitchcock’s own self-awareness, as when he echoes the speech made by Peter Lorre at the end of M, declaring, “Every night I lock myself in my room, there’s a madman on the other side waiting to slit my throat.” This just before he heads out to abuse “the girl again.”
If it’s not likely you’ll feel sorry for him, you might at least begin to guess at what’s made him so monstrous. And then the movie shifts gears again, returning its own discomforting gaze to Hedren. Surrounded by women who go along—from Alma to the assistant Peggy (Penelope Wilton)—she understands limits. When she wonders why Melanie, her character in The Birds, goes into the attic alone, Hitchcock explains, “Because I want her to.” That’s about right, though he adds that he thinks she’s looking for punishment, feeling guilty because the birds came to Bodega bay with her. “Everything’s ruined and it’s all my fault, sure,” Hedren says ,“I’m a woman. I can do that standing on my head.” Indeed.