Infamous – A Review

Infamous’ flaw is that it forgets about the victims. It’s a murder story that believes writers’ block is a greater tragedy than homicide. Would that there was not another Truman Capote movie out there (and an Oscar-winning one at that), the film-makers might have got away with making a perfectly serviceable, star-studded meditation on angst – but there is another Truman Capote movie and Capote is to Infamous what Raging Bull is to Rocky V. Ok, that’s a bit harsh, but what Infamous misses out seems almost as egregious an error. How can a film tell the story of In Cold Blood and leave out those who were murdered so that it might exist?

The key difference between these two films is where they choose to begin. Infamous starts with Capote enjoying himself. We are in a New York nightclub and Gwyneth Paltrow is singing to us. It is a sad sad song, full of heartache and romance, and she sings it like a woman who might well walk off stage and take an overdose when she’s finished. Toby Jones watches her as though his eyes are her life raft. He seems to feel every peak and trough of her emotions, and (which is more) he makes no secret of his sensitivity.

Jones does stirring work with his depiction of Capote in this movie and this first scene is a tip-off that he’ll be every inch Philip Seymor-Hoffman’s equal: his Capote is self-aware, but vital; alive, even though his manner of living seems mannered in the extreme. He speaks (as one friend notes) “the way a brussel sprout would sound if a brussel sprout could talk”. He is an oddity and being different has (with mixed blessings) made his reputation.

Capote reads about a murder in Kansas. A wealthy farmer, his wife and two children have been killed. They would make a good subject for a story, he thinks. In Capote there had been a lot of scenes set in Kansas before this scene. We had been taken to the house where these murders occurred right at the beginning. Why? Because, I think, people were murdered here, and Truman Capote will only come to know that – know them, I should say – much later. In his writing he knew exactly in what order the events of In Cold Blood should be told. He started with the last day on earth of the murder victims.

Infamous might get everything else right, but if it makes no space, no hole in its story where a Kansas family are dead, then it has missed what is most essential to Capote’s only real lasting literary achievement (don’t get too up-in-arms: I like “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” too, but it ain’t Moby Dick).

Casting Sandra Bullock as Nelle Harper-Lee does no harm, though I can’t make up my mind whether she is worse than Katherine Keener or just more famous and so more noticeable when doing an accent. Likewise, Daniel Craig is a fine Perry Smith, but there is a quality to his madness that’s a bit familiar to those who remember him from his pre-James Bond days of Love is the Devil and The Jacket.

Infamous shows us how Capote adapted to life in Kansas; how he disdained the place; got used to it; fell in love there and watched the man he loved executed. We get bits of life back in Manhattan; Capote’s “swans” (read: mature NY society-groupies), for whom he was confidant, raconteur, rabbit’s foot and cautionary tale – played beautifully and each with their own shard of fragility by such master-class scene stealers as Sigourney Weaver, Hope Davis and Isabella Rossellini.

But always there are ghosts missing. And though Capote on screen might find his soul in the depth of loss he experiences when Perry Smith is executed, Capote in print (and in Capote) found his soul in how he wrote about four murders. In Cold Blood isn’t famous just because it’s Truman Capote’s last book.


3 Responses to Infamous – A Review

  1. RPG says:

    Absolutely, positively, 100 percent, spot-on review! Unfortunately the web is replete with witless hacks who pawn off their tone-deaf, nitwiticisms on the unsuspecting, unhygienic masses. Thanks for rising above the mire. Cheers, mate!

  2. Rosie Powell says:

    INFAMOUS is not about a murder story. It’s not about the murder of the Clutters. INFAMOUS is about how Truman Capote became damaged whien he wrote “In Cold Blood”. And it is about how the writing of this book and his interactions with murderer Perry Smith had damaged him. Director Doug McGrath made this clear in the DVD commentary. Come to think of it, I didn’t have to hear McGrath’s explanation to understand what was really going on.

    If you were expecting something different, you had picked the wrong movie.

  3. jtatham says:

    Rosie – I appreciate what you say about Infamous and I agree that it does do a good job of showing how Capote was damaged by his friendship with Perry Smith. My only caveat would be that the movie “Capote” shows how Capote was damaged by association too, but it also finds time to show the full horror of the crime Smith committed. I could see what McGrath and his team were trying to do in showing more of Capote’s social life and focusing to a greater extent on things beside the Clutter murder, but for me, without those murders, Capote would never have written his definitive book. It’s a little like trying to tell the life story of Herman Melville and not paying much attention to his time at sea, or leaving Africa out of the life story of Joseph Conrad. Yes, you could still tell a story about either man, but it wouldn’t be the story that defined them.

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