Michael Winterbottom’s The Face of an Angel is a clumsy beast. It tells the story of Daniel Brühl’s Thomas, a filmmaker planning to make a film based on the events of a young girl’s brutal murder (the case is loosely based on the 2007 killing of American student Meredith Kercher and the subsequent trial of Amanda Knox). He comes and goes from the Italian town of Siena, where the murder has taken place, sharing notes with journalists covering the trial and ingratiating himself with locals in order to get a feel for the town and better understanding of events. Struggling with writer’s block in attempting to get his version of the story down on paper, he skirts round the edges of a breakdown as he tries to get a handle on what’s going on in his own life.
It’s an odd conceit and, not unlike many of Winterbottom’s previous metafictions, one in which the supposed story plays second fiddle to the actual story of the creators on the outskirts hoping to bring it to the screen. The result this time round is a strange brew, and one he doesn’t entirely manage to pull off. There are just too many angles at play, some more successful than others, and the parts never cohere into a satisfying whole. There’s Thomas’s involvement in the trial itself and his half-hearted investigation of the crime, during which we’re led to believe he might be in some danger himself. But, no, no he isn’t. Then there are his various flirtations with two local Brits. He gets involved to a degree with the journalist Simone (a lifeless, exposition spouting, Kate Beckinsale), but only a sucker would buy what they’re selling. Whereas his time spent with the bar-tending Melanie (Carla Delevingne bringing some much-needed spark) results in some of the film highlights, the film seems to relax into itself whenever they’re on screen as the relationship they develop enters Lost in Translation territory. Throw in Thomas’s producers in London and his ex-wife and daughter, Beatrice, skyping in from L.A. and you’ve got a lot of disparate ingredients to pull together.
The film is not without its moments though, and at the very least is worthwhile in its further examination of many of Winterbottom’s thematic touchstones; human complexity, the romantic poets, storytelling and mythmaking. In one stand out scene, Thomas comes to the realisation that when the press have been using the term ‘Face of an Angel’ they have been referring to the accused and not the victim. The victim, it dawns on him, has quickly been forgotten in the face of the compelling story of the accused. Whereas the accused herself has had her whole life summed up based on a dash of social networking posts and a pinch of salacious rumours. He goes head-to-head with one of the tabloid journalists present, criticising the intentions of the press. A person’s life should not be forgotten or reduced so flippantly he tells us. Ah, but doesn’t Thomas plan to do the very same thing? See – complexity! At the same time, this scene also serves to remind us that one of the many things taken from us in death is any sense of dynamism. Dead girls don’t sell papers for long.
Thomas eventually plans to structure his film so that the story of the two girls mirrors that of Dante’s The Divine Comedy, taking us from hell, through purgatory and into paradise. In a nice touch that, in retrospect, probably cuts a little close to the bone, the producers of his intended film are never fully on board with the whole Divine Comedy, art house, thing. Surprisingly or not though, it’s when the film does embrace these digressions into Dante and, more to the point, Thomas’s romantic trails and tribulations that it does take flight. Dipping again into Winterbottom’s exploration of romantic love, versus a more pragmatic and adult love.
Melanie gifts Thomas a copy of Dante’s The New Life at one point leading to a discussion of Dante’s two alternate endings for the story. One in which the man character, a stand-in for Dante, stays with his life long partner and another in which he ends up with the younger Beatrice. Melanie prefers the second ending. “That’s because you’re a teenager,” Thomas tells her.
It’s not going to be everybody’s cup of tea, but Winterbottom fans should definitely give it a chance – both to see what it looks like when he doesn’t quite stick the landing (and better appreciate it when he does), as well as for the glimmers of a film that could have been.