Winterbottom's The Face of an Angel makes for compelling viewing, painting an arresting character portrait even if it avoids the direct engagement with the original (and much-discussed) crime that some people may have been expecting.
When British student Meredith Kercher was found murdered in her flat in Italy, back in 2007, it didn’t took long for local journalists to set aside ethics and sobriety in order to quickly build the usual, shameless media hype. Feeding the audience’s growing thirst for morbid details, tabloids and TV programmes jumped on the story head first; they speculated, distorted and exaggerated every piece of news, selling what was left of their souls to the gods of TV ratings. The crime, investigation, first suspects and subsequent trial flooded the newscasts, becoming an omnipresent and over-analysed topic – the Italian equivalent of Madeleine McCann’s disappearance in the UK. It didn’t take long before the media’s approach to the case became a talking point as relevant as the crime itself. Not even when American student Amanda Knox was found guilty of the killing (with her accomplice, then-boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito) did the attention diminish, as the Italian judicial system allows different chances of appeal; as of today, the trial is still ongoing, and no one has been definitively convicted (Knox was eventually acquitted in 2011 and allowed to fly back to the U.S., but was found guilty again in 2014).
Almost ten years later, British director Michael Winterbottom (9 Songs, The Road to Guantanamo) reexamines Kercher’s killing in hindsight in his new, dark thriller The Face Of An Angel. His vehicle for the event reconstruction is Thomas (Daniel Brühl), a London-based film director with an erratic career, whose upcoming project focuses on the case. Brühl is not new to a film based on news stories: just over one year ago, he starred along Benedict Cumberbatch in The Fifth Estate. Much unlike the poorly received flick about Julian Assange, The Face Of An Angel has some actual connections with the real events (although names and locations have been changed). But more than this, it tries until the very last shot to reach beyond the formulaic j’accuse against the media circus; in a frantic quest for originality, Winterbottom uses his personality and skills to take the viewer on a journey inside the aberrations of the human mind. Thomas’s journey is riddled with nightmarish atmospheres and inexplicable visions: the more time he spends in Italy, the more he loses his track. His research on the case soon blends with his personal life issues, fears and insecurities, in a whirlwind of madness and self-destruction. Three main characters help him with his project: Kate Beckinsale as Simone, a journalist who followed the case from the very beginning; Valerio Mastandrea (one of Italy’s finest actors) as Edoardo, a bizarre local who seems too interested in the case not to have a hidden agenda; and Cara Delevingne in her debut performance as Melanie, another English student who becomes Thomas’s buddy in the investigation.
Much like Thomas’s inner struggle, The Face Of An Angel loses its thread more and more. As the the plot moves forward, the Kercher case fades to the background, giving space to a direct critique of the journalists’ reckless attitude towards crime news. The story takes a horrorish twist when Winterbottom introduces Mastandrea’s character, and the focus shifts further away. Halfway into the film, it becomes strikingly clear that the director has bitten off more that he can chew; the audience’s perplexity and dissatisfaction mirror the confusion in Thomas’s head. Maybe it’s Winterbottom’s precise choice to make us reflect on the bigger picture and forget the whodunnit. The result, however, is hit-and-miss: The Face Of An Angel is a would-be poignant drama, burdened by odd, idiosyncratic characters, and too feeble to fully buy into.
Melanie represents the unique fun that is left inside the life of a ruined director who tries to restructure his career through the filming of a renown murder case, but the problem is that he is already profoundly deep inside a hole from which he is not able to escape: incoherence. It is a reflection of the film, and such as in the story, Delevingne's character gets to be the only enjoyable role that avoids the film falling even deeper into that metaphoric hole.
The film does occasionally show a pulse when it tries to reimagine the life of the victim — it turns the tables on the mystery and tries to become a film about love and life instead of doom and death. But it’s too little, too late, and too lame.
To get at the heart of what’s wrong with The Face of an Angel all you need to do is consider the professional stones it takes to adapt the Amanda Knox case into yet another movie about the existential/amorous crises of a white male filmmaker. (And then have the nerve to dedicate the results to the memory of the murder-victim in the real-life case!)
Virtually nothing happens in the film that enhances viewers’ understanding of the situation. Winterbottom and company merely survey the scene, kick around a few half-assed moments of atmosphere and suspense, shrug their shoulders, and pack it in for the night.
How do you make one of the decade’s most sensational crimes boring? It’s an odd trick, but director Michael Winterbottom manages it in The Face of an Angel, a stubbornly dull retelling of the famous Italian case.