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Capote (2005)
Director: Bennett Miller

review by Roger Keen

Capote is destined to be remembered for the dazzling central performance of Philip Seymour Hoffman as the eponymous writer, who will most probably take this year's best actor Oscar. It is indeed the kind of role where all the work, the technicalities are upfront and visible, and the transformation of the burly 5' 9" Hoffman into the camp 5' 3" Capote, with his whiny, fey falsetto voice is remarkable in its accuracy and convincingness - so much so that one temporarily forgets what the real Capote was like.

But for a performance to succeed so well the underlying film must be soundly wrought, and Capote is just that - an excellent, cleverly layered piece, being one at the same time a biopic of a writer, a crime story viewed from the angle of journalism and a stunning psychological cautionary tale, detailing the dangers of an artist getting too close to his subject.

The action starts in 1959, when Truman Capote is already a celebrated writer, basking in the success of Breakfast At Tiffany's and cutting a dash as a raconteur on the New York party scene. In search of a new project, he alights upon a case that has horrified the nation - the apparently senseless murders of a whole family in the small town of Holcomb, Kansas. Accompanied by the writer Harper Lee (Catherine Keener), Capote turns up in Holcomb and soon befriends local lawman Alvin Dewey (Chris Cooper), who gives him the access he needs. When the culprits, Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr) and Dick Hickock (Mark Pellegrino) are captured, he befriends them too, and begins a six-year association with the men, culminating in their execution by hanging.

The more immersed Capote becomes in his subject, the more his ambition grows, till he realises he is set to produce a major groundbreaking literary work - a 'non-fiction novel'. The film's fascination lies in the way it charts Capote's relationship with the men - in particular Smith - and the duplicity he employs in maintaining their trust, pretending to want to help them in their legal battles, when mostly he just wants suck them dry of the material he needs for his book. In one scene Smith inquires if Capote has a title for the book, and Capote says no. This is a lie, and Capote has already read parts of In Cold Blood [filmed by Richard Brooks in 1967 -Ed] to an audience. But he wants to keep the exploitative title a secret; fearful of course that Smith will see his whole strategy is exploitative. Before he can finish the book Capote needs Smith to answer one vital question - what actually happened on the night of the killings - and he becomes a tease, expertly cajoling Smith into playing his game. Ultimately, the fate that the men are relying on Capote to save them from is just what the author needs to give his book an ending, and the pressure of finding he is in too deep, coupled with his ambiguous feelings for Smith lead Capote off the rails.

Just as In Cold Blood captivates for its nonfiction story told with a fiction-like intensity, so Miller's film mirrors these qualities, turning Capote into a character as large as any he actually created. Hoffman's subtle portrayal never strikes a false note, and Catherine Keener, Clifton Collins Jr and Chris Cooper give fine support. The photography and design have an authentic period feel, and the careful use of establishing shots - the flat landscapes of Kansas and the monolithic territory of Manhattan - leave a lasting impression of two different worlds colliding. Capote doesn't feel like your regular 'serious' American film, where the message is homogenised and a set of boxes have to be ticked in its delivery. It stays with you, inviting further thought, and as an exploration of literature and crime's compulsive relationship it is groundbreaking.
Capote

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