Truman Capote ranks as one of America’s greatest ever writers, yet today is probably best known – at least to film lovers – as the author of that classic Audrey Hepburn flick Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
He is also prime material for the typical Hollywood biopic – a man who rose from poverty in the deep south to the New York cocktail set, mixing with A-list celebrities and royalty while engaging in a string of doomed homosexual relationships with married men and battling drug and alcohol addictions, before dying of a drug overdose aged 59. With a reported IQ of 215 – significantly higher than that of Albert Einstein – Capote was a classic example of a tortured genius.
This biopic, however, does not take the standard, obvious route. Rather than try to cover Capote’s entire event and tragedy-packed life, it instead focuses on the period from 1959-1966 in which he researched and wrote In Cold Blood, a non-fiction novel about the unexplained murder of a family of four in rural Kansas, before publishing it to worldwide acclaim.
The lisping, introverted genius, wonderfully and accurately portrayed by Philip Seymour Hoffman to wild praise and numerous award nominations, was the last person anyone could have imagined to have befriended the two killers – a couple of ex-cons on parole who had mistakenly believed that the family had a safe full of cash on their farm. Yet, aided by fellow writer Harper Lee, of To Kill A Mockingbird fame and played here by Katherine Keener, over the course of several years Capote’s fascination with the case led him to gain the confidences of practically everyone involved, allowing him a level of insight into the tragic circumstances of both murder and murderer which few writers have ever managed to achieve.
Here, as well as providing an alternative perspective on the case from that in Capote’s still highly-regarded book, the filmmakers focus on Capote’s own internal conflict – the clash between his desire to finish writing something truly memorable and his genuine compassion for his subjects.
Hoffman is superb, as anyone who has seen his performances in the likes of Magnolia, Boogie Nights and Happiness would only expect. A lesser actor would have struggled not merely to cope with mimicking Capote’s stuttering, high-pitched whine, which could easily descend into bad parody, but also with the complexities of the writer’s competing desires and emotions. Hoffman, however, is more than up to the task, managing to keep the audience’s sympathy and interest maintained throughout despite the often slow pace and potential irritation of his nasal tones.
Unlike so many Hollywood films based on real events – especially those where the main character is a famous one – this is a restrained, dark and atmospheric movie that, despite having been based on a biography and having biographical elements, plays more like an intelligent crime drama than any standard biopic. By steering clear of any of the sensationalism which would have been so easy with a life like Capote’s, the filmmakers – and Hoffman in particular – have produced a touching, engaging, original and intriguing film which more than deserves the praise that has been heaped upon it.