Douglas McGrath’s infamously ill-timed Infamous is at least a minor tragedy of cinema. Not only is the film better than the overpraised (including by me) Capote (2005), it’s about a hundred times better than its famous predecessor — and Toby Jones’ doesn’t so much portray Truman Capote as he inhabits him in a way that might make you ask, “Philip Seymour who?”
Unfortunately, the inferior Capote came first and was a huge critical success. It snagged Philip Seymour Hoffman an Oscar. And it left little room for another film about Capote and the story surrounding the creation of his “nonfiction novel” In Cold Blood. After all, who is likely to want to see the same story all over again, especially when it stars a virtually unknown British character actor. Looking over Toby Jones’ credits, I find I’ve seen in him in several recent movies — Ladies in Lavender (2004), Finding Neverland (2004) and Mrs. Henderson Presents (2005) — but I honestly only remember him as the voice of Dobby the House Elf in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002). Perhaps that’s part of the reason he’s so perfect for the role of Capote — there’s nothing of a pre-existing screen presence to show through.
Even in my original review for Capote I expressed misgivings about the film’s “curious lack of passion” that recorded events “without seeming to feel them.” If I’d had the opportunity to see the film a second time — which I’ve since done — my misgivings would have grown into serious reservations about the actual quality of Capote. It wasn’t, however, till I saw Infamous and saw the story done right that I fully understood just how far short Capote fell in terms of the material.
Capote is a cold, detached, intellectualized (at least on the indie-film level of intellectualism) work. Infamous is warmly human, bright, colorful and witty. It makes strong use of the contrast between Capote’s 1959 New York nightclub life as confidante to the rich and famous and the drabness of rural Kansas. In Capote even the high life is pretty drab and colorless. That’s at the center of the differences between the two films. Infamous captures the jaunty bitchiness of the Capote public persona in the way we remember him as a personality and juxtaposes that with the more deeply troubled human being underneath. When Infamous turns dark, its darkness is all the more shocking and troubling than anything in Capote, which is dark from the first frame.
Infamous brilliantly sets the viewer up with a gossipy insider’s look at Capote’s world of personalities. Sure it’s glitzy and shallow, but it’s also fun and it makes the tragedy that follows that much more poignant. This is also a much more daring film — it goes places concerning Capote’s relationship with confessed killer Perry Smith (Daniel Craig in a stunning performance) that the earlier film tried to gloss over with intellectualization. But what truly makes Infamous at least near great is that it captures the humanity of its characters, even while not letting them off the hook.
Capote is never less than an effete name-dropper, whose primary interest in Perry is getting a great book out of him. Nowhere is this more evident than when he keeps slightly altering Perry’s words as he tells the story to his society friends — until he gauges which phrasing creates the most shocking impact. But Capote is also human here. His sense of guilt is palpable and seems indisputable — to the degree that when Harper Lee (Sandra Bullock) makes the statement about three men dying on the gallows the night Smith and his accomplice Dick Hickock (Lee Pace, The White Countess) were hanged, her words pack a wallop. This is brilliant filmmaking.
The entire cast is remarkable and though I’m sure it’s heresy to say this about a “movie star” up against indie fave Catherine Keener, Sandra Bullock’s portrayal of Harper Lee is definitive — probably the performance of her career. You’re probably going to miss this film in the theater — I’ll be surprised if it’s playing by Friday — but don’t let it get away from you when it hits DVD. Rated R for language, violence and some sexuality.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke