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Capote: Saved by its performances

February 27, 2006 16:48 IST

A still from CapoteAmong the best human stories are those that begin with curiosity and end with remorse. It is because these protagonists, more than many others, reflect something innate within us. They remind us of how easily their roles and ours could switch. The tale of American writer Truman Capote (1924-1984) is one such.

At the outset, although this film gives you the impression of being a biopic, it is concerned with just one episode of Capote's life. That it was a life-changing episode is what gives it the drama worthy of being replicated on film. An episode that chronicles his rise, then documents his loss of morality and subsequent spectacular fall.

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The plot, then, is merely a recreation of the period in question.

It concerns a 1959 newspaper report that Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman) comes across, about a family of four brutally murdered in a small town in Kansas called Holcomb. Offering to do a story for New Yorker magazine, he sets off for the place along with his childhood friend Nelle Harper Lee (Catherine Keener) -- a woman soon to be known as the author of the best-selling To Kill a Mockingbird.

Even as he tries to win the trust of the investigating officer and other locals, two men -- Dick Hickock (Mark Pellegrino) and Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.) -- are arrested and charged with the murders. After meeting the killers, Capote realizes a magazine story will not do this justice. He opts for a 'non-fiction novel' instead, coining the phrase now used to describe journalism with a literary voice.

Over the next six years, Capote gets to know the killers, understands how much he has in common with one of them, and befriends them. Then, in order to complete his novel, he betrays them. The resulting best-seller, In Cold Blood, destroys him.

A still from CapoteWhat the film sets out to do is capture the peculiar dilemma faced by the author. If he stays on the path of the morally right, he can still be a good novelist. If he strays, it could catapult him to greatness, but at a price. With the Hickock and Smith story, Capote knows he is on the threshold of greatness. But to what extent must he go to achieve it?

At a certain level, this can be looked at as a love story. A love story without a happy ending, between a writer and a murderer. Capote is attached to the murderer, but the latter's death is necessary for the former to achieve greatness in life. It is this dilemma that director Bennett Miller tries to understand.

To a large extent, he manages. Capote's degeneration is captured faithfully, and the audience is given a chance to study the character in detail, thanks to a superb performance by Philip Hoffman. Soon after Hickock and Smith are hanged, Capote, in an attempt to pacify his guilt, tells Harper Lee that there was nothing he could have done to save them. Lee, who knows him well, replies, "Maybe the fact is you didn't want to."

In Cold Blood, the novel, did give Capote the greatness he so desperately craved. Capote, the film, tells us about the price he had to pay. The author didn't complete another book. He descended into alcoholism, dying of it in 1984.

The movie is a Hoffman show from start to finish. From the quirky voice to effeminate body language, down to the deft manner in which he adjusts his spectacles, he relives Truman Capote. His performance reflects the shifts taking place in the writer's soul, as the trial proceeds. The Academy ought to give him his Oscar right away.

And for those who read, or have read In Cold Blood, remember this – in those pages lie the deaths of not four, but five people.

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Krishna Kumar