Douglas McGrath's "Infamous" takes essentially the same story covered in Bennett Miller's 2005 "Capote" and makes something quite different out of it, in much the same way that a different kind of light can completely change the contours of an actor's face. In 1959, New York-based writer Truman Capote discovered a tiny news item in The New York Times, about the murder of a small-town Kansas family. With his friend Harper Lee in tow, Capote traveled to Holcomb, Kan., and his findings became the acclaimed book "In Cold Blood." The book cemented Capote's reputation as a writer, and yet the experience (which included interviews with the killers) destroyed him: He never completed another book again.
This story is now familiar, and well told in "Capote": an elegant, chilly exploration into a writer's soul, heightened by a whispery yet powerful performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman. You feel for McGrath, who learned of Miller's project after completing his own Capote screenplay; the two films chased each other through production, with "Capote" emerging first. (The long delay in releasing "Infamous" is no doubt to remove the freshest memories of the first film.) And yet, the two movies make fine bookends to each other. Each shines its own light on the "In Cold Blood" years; each works well on its own terms.
"Infamous" takes a lighter tone: McGrath has chosen to focus more on Capote's glittering life in Manhattan, where he preened at society parties and whispered confidences into the ears of a parade of elegant matrons. And the drama is frequently interrupted by talking-head interviews, with actors playing famous friends of Capote's: Gore Vidal, Babe Paley, Diana Vreeland. It's oral history turned into narrative, and while the gossipy tone tends to lessen the impact of the murder revelations, it's nonetheless thoroughly entertaining. Seeing Capote in the context of his society life makes the Kansas experience all the more bizarre; stepping off the train to a bare platform in quiet Holcomb, he's entering another world.
As Capote, Toby Jones bears an uncanny resemblance to the writer; he's a tiny man, pale as tissue yet brashly confident. (Seeing the diminutive Jones dance with Sigourney Weaver's towering Paley is a comic highlight.) His take on the character is less whispery and more wry than Hoffman's, and his costuming and behavior is more outlandish, sometimes distractingly so. But he finds a humanity in this chatty jester, and his downfall is haunting as he sits, drinking alone ("suicide," he reflects sadly, "for the faint of heart").
The star-studded supporting cast flit through the film, some more successfully than others. Hope Davis brings a lovely dryness to socialite Slim Keith, while Juliet Stevenson seems to miss Vreeland's wit (instead, she's all gravel). Daniel Craig has some taut, powerful moments as Perry, the more articulate of the two killers.
But "Infamous" is quietly stolen by Sandra Bullock as Harper Lee. Long a character actor hiding within the trappings of a Hollywood star, Bullock gives Lee a precise, warm Alabama accent, an appreciation for beer and burgers, a determined straight-ahead march in her sensible shoes, and a calm wisdom that permeates the movie. "There were three deaths on the gallows that day," says Lee to an unseen interviewer, thinking back to the rainy night of the Kansas murderer's execution. She pauses, thoughtfully, gazing without fear at the camera. "It's true for writers. They die a little, getting it right."
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org