Film Studies: You thought it was too soon for another Capote? Think again...

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The Independent Culture

The best new film I've seen this year is about the writer Truman Capote. It shows what happened to him when went to Holcomb, Kansas, to research the inexplicable murder of the members of the Clutter family. It's not the prettiest or most cheerful portrait of the writing life you're ever going to see. For instance - and I know, this comes just in time - it's a good deal more unsettling than the version on show in last year's film, Capote, for which Philip Seymour Hoffman won an Oscar.

Now, I like Hoffman and I thought he gave a brilliant impersonation last year as Capote. I don't mean to knock him or that film, but what I want to tell you is that I have just seen a new picture - it will not open until the autumn - that is called Infamous, in which an English actor, Toby Jones, is Capote without the least hint of impersonation. He looks and sounds not only more like the real Truman Capote, he is the man.

The people behind this new film know that you are going to say, "Seen that, done that..." They admit that their film covers exactly the same events as the Hoffman Capote. They know that coming second is coming in last. They have seemingly settled on a title, Infamous, that could describe 50 films you can't remember. So, please believe me, they know that their film needs every bit of help it can get. And since I've seen it, and I think it's remarkable, I'm sounding off early in this way. No, this is not a review. This is an impression. (And I have no reason to attack Capote, or diminish it. I thought it was a good picture. But this is better.)

What does it have that's different? Well, first of all, it is written and directed by Douglas McGrath. He wrote Bullets Over Broadway with Woody Allen; and he wrote and directed Emma and Nicholas Nickleby. His film has a gallery of Truman Capote's Manhattan friends, people who adored him without ever quite trusting him: I'm thinking of Babe Paley (Sigourney Weaver), the clothes horse wife of Bill Paley, who controlled CBS; Diana Vreeland (Juliet Stevenson), the fashion magazine editor; Slim Keith (Hope Davis), the woman who was married to Howard Hawks and Leland Hayward; Bennett Cerf (Peter Bogdanovich), the publisher. These cameos give a tone-perfect sense of Capote's life before In Cold Blood. He is placed as the phenomenon of culture, celebrity and outrage that he was.

And here's another thing that Infamous has. In the opening scene of the film, Truman and Babe Paley are at the El Morocco night club in 1959, listening to a singer, Kitty Dean (Gwyneth Paltrow). She leaps into her number and then falters. She breaks down, slowly recovers, and finishes the song. It is the best thing I have ever seen Paltrow do - and it is for us to judge how far the incident is a model for Infamous.

But none of this is the big thing. In Capote, the achievement of the film - and it delivers - is to show that Capote was a shit, a devious glory-seeker and a fine writer who got his own way all the time. That film says he was ruined by his success, but you don't feel it, because Hoffman's Capote is too tough and too self-centred to be brought down by his own moral failure.

In Infamous you feel the tragedy. Yes, Truman goes to Kansas with Harper Lee (this time it's Sandra Bullock, and she's superb). He slowly wins the confidence of law and order there. He becomes a famous dinner guest in Holcomb. He meets the killers - Dick Hickock and Perry Smith. And as he starts to write the book, he falls in love with Perry Smith. That was hinted at as a possibility in Capote, though its Truman is hardly capable of love. The ultimate triumph of Infamous is that he is weak enough to need, and that's what ruins him.

Truman Capote is played here by Toby Jones, an English actor. I realised that I had seen him before. He played Ernie Wise in The Play What I Wrote, which I couldn't stand. He has done other things, but this is a staggering advance in which Capote the social shit and Truman the crushed soul are equally apparent. The way things are in the world, I suspect he'll get politely praised; but believe me, this is a better performance than Philip Seymour Hoffman's.

That is not all. Perry Smith is played by Daniel Craig. I noticed him first as the nasty guy in Road to Perdition. He starred opposite Gwyneth Paltrow in Sylvia. He was in Steven Spielberg's Munich, as the hard guy in the group. He is - as I'm sure you know - the new James Bond, shortly to star in Casino Royale. He is also due to appear with Nicole Kidman in The Visiting.

And in a year's time, I suspect, it will be taken for granted that he is one of the best screen actors anywhere - and a great part of that will be because of Infamous, where he is as frightening as any killer, as abject as a person without education, and yet as touching as the man Capote was oddly graced by meeting.

So get ready for Infamous - unless someone has the wit to find a new title. Understand in advance that the leading arbiters of culture will tell you it's the same thing warmed up, a story you know, a curiosity even.

It's none of those. We do not write off this year's Hamlet because we enjoyed last year's. We might listen to Mahler's Ninth tonight and in a few months' time. You do not really know this story in advance, for a very good reason: you have not been moved by it yet. You have been intrigued, entertained - all good things. In Infamous, among other things, you have Gwyneth Paltrow's breakdown and the fact that one of the killers took 30 minutes to die after he had been hanged. People collapse slowly. You will be surprised.

d.thomson@independent.co.uk

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