Feud: Capote vs The Swans review - Glittering cast with Tom Hollander and Naomi Watts cannot save this tragedy

Television: Ryan Murphy’s portrayal of Truman Capote with swoon-worthy ensemble is not the capricious romp he may have originally had in mind

Ryan Murphy is the crown prince of trashy true-life TV, but even for him, there is such a thing as going too far. He may have retold the stories of OJ Simpson (to great acclaim) and serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer (to the outrage of the victims’ families), but he baulked at raking over Charles and Diana’s divorce.

In 2018, the end of the Windsors’ marriage had been the proposed subject matter for year two of his Feud series – the first season having chronicled the hateful relationship between silver screen stars Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. But Murphy said he “couldn’t find a way into” the Charles and Diana story. He has instead pivoted to New York high society and the downfall of Breakfast at Tiffany’s author Truman Capote (whose legacy includes inspiring the Belfast club night Buckfast at Tiffany’s).

Capote is hardly obscure. In 2005, Philip Seymour Hoffman won an Oscar for portraying him during the writing of his groundbreaking nonfiction bestseller In Cold Blood. Nonetheless, Feud: Capote vs The Swans (Disney + from Wednesday) does start with the assumption that the viewer is all in on the life and times of Truman Capote. That you care about his rise to pre-eminence on the Manhattan social circuit of the 1960s. And that you are invested in his tragic decline amid a blizzard of drugs and booze.

In that, it suffers the same flaw as Feud season one, which demanded the audience share Murphy’s obsession with Davis and Crawford. If you did – way-hey, this was the soapy melodrama you’d been waiting all your life for. If not, well, it was going to be a long eight hours.

Capote vs The Swans is more accessible, largely thanks to its glittering cast. As Capote, the reliable Tom Hollander disappears into the part. It is not entirely clear if he is inhabiting Capote or pastiching him – at moments, he surely errs towards the latter. Still, he’s never less than watchable and captures vividly the tragedy of Capote’s decline.

The “Swans” were the socialites of whom Capote fell foul when he used their private humiliations as grist for his writing. Here, executive producer Murphy has assembled a swoon-worthy ensemble, including Demi Moore, Naomi Watts, Diane Lane, Calista Flockhart and Chloë Sevigny – all enjoying the chance to play ladies who lunch with a vengeance.

There’s lots of ability behind the camera too. The script is by award-winning playwright Jon Robin Baitz, while the first four episodes are directed with a wry auteur’s touch by Gus Van Sant.

But while everyone involved has clearly put in the work, the results feel less than the sum of the assembled talents. Perhaps it is because the story is so deeply sad. “Feud” evokes images of Wile E Coyote vs Roadrunner or Johnny Logan vs Dickie Rock (which should obviously be its own prestige streaming series).

Yet the violent deterioration of Capote’s friendships with the great and the good of New York was more than just mischief on his part. It was part of a wider narrative of the writer’s self-destruction and self-harm. For all the fizz Hollander brings, this tale is ultimately a tragedy rather than the capricious romp Murphy may have originally had in mind.

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