Directed by: Michael Winterbottom.
Written by: Paul Viragh based on the book by Barbie Latza Nadeau.
Starring: Daniel Brühl (Thomas), Cara Delevingne (Melanie), Kate Beckinsale (Simone Ford), Lucy Cohu (Caroline), Genevieve Gaunt (Jessica Fuller), Ava Acres (Bea), Rosie Fellner (Katherine), Sara Stewart (Sarah), John Hopkins (Joe), Sai Bennett (Elizabeth Pryce), Peter Sullivan (James Pryce), Alistair Petrie (Steve), Corrado Invernizzi (Francesco), Valerio Mastandrea (Edoardo), Andrea Tidona (Pubblico Ministero).
If you’ve seen the previews for Michael Winterbottom’s The Face of an Angel, you will be forgiven for thinking that what he has made is a “true crime” story about Amanda Knox – the now infamous case where an American University student in Italy was charged with murdering a British University student she lived with – a trial that, along with the appeals process, dragged on for years (even after this movie was completed). That is what the trailer for the movie is selling – the story of two people, played by Daniel Bruhl and Kate Beckinsale, who investigate the crime, and find there is a lot more than meets the eye. It’s smart of them to sell that movie – as it’s far more commercial than the one Winterbottom has actually made – which uses the Knox case to examine media ethics, and focus on a director who is having a midlife crisis, a few years early, after his divorce – who wants to know if it’s even possible to make a movie about this case that tells people what the “truth” is, when there are so many unanswered questions – and how shameful it is that no one seems to care about the victim, only the accused killer. He starts to lose track of reality as he slides into cocaine use, and paranoia – and a growing friendship with a pretty, British student around the age of the two girls involved in the case. On one hand, I admired The Face of An Angel for attempting to do something entirely different with the true crime genre – essentially by questioning the legitimacy of the genre in the first place. On the other hand, what Winterbottom has done in The Face of Angel doesn’t really work at all, and is more than a little hypocritical, as he uses the Knox case to draw people in, and then admonishes them for being interested. Not only that, he admonishes people for making money on the case, when unless he did the movie for free, so he has. While he says it’s a shame that no one pays attention to the victim of the crime – a legitimate problem with true crime – he doesn’t spend much time with her either (far more than the killer, true, but it’s still a tiny fraction of the movie as a whole). I believe the intentions behind the movie were good – but the execution is way off.
The film stars Daniel Bruhl as Thomas, a filmmaker who hasn’t made a film in a few years, as a few projects have fallen apart, and he has sunk into depression as his wife has left him for another man, and taken their daughter to live in L.A. He has accepted an offer to write and direct a movie about Jessica Fuller (the Knox stand-in), and is in Sienna, Italy to watch the appeal (this being the first appeal, after she was convicted, not the most recent appeal, after she was acquitted). His guide to Sienna, and the case, is Simone Ford (Kate Beckinsale), a British reporter stationed in Italy, who covers the case for a host of newspapers and TV networks. She is one of many reporters, who follow the case, write magazine articles and books about it, and then go on TV and analyze every aspect of it – including the seemingly mundane things like what Fuller wears to court every day – and what those clothes mean. Thomas will eventually get two other “guides” as it were – Eduardo (Valerio Mastandrea), an Italian blogger, and general scary guy, who says he knows the “truth” behind what happened – and who Thomas eventually becomes to suspect is involved more than he lets on, and Melanie (Cara Delevingne), a British student and waitress, around the same age as the two girls involved in the case, who can show them the world that they lived in.
The Face of An Angel is a rather scattershot and confused movie that shoots off in all directions at one, and seemingly loses track of the plot at various points. One minute, we’re finding out details about the case, then we’re discussing Dante, then Thomas is accusing the reporters of being parasites, then he’s having sex with Simone, then he’s worried about his own daughter, and then he’s doing a lot of cocaine. Winterbottom never settles on any one subject long enough to truly explore it. As a result, the movie never really lands its punches. Is it wrong to make a movie about this case? Is it wrong to write about it? Is Edoardo involved? Is it responsible to start throwing crazy theories around, when we haven’t really solved the case yet?
In short, the movie throws everything on the screen, hoping that something will stick – and one thing does. That is Cara Delevingne’s performance as Melanie – the young British student who befriends Thomas, and shows him the world of parties, bars and clubs in Sienna – and the foreigners who inhabit them. I have to admit I was worried the moment the movie introduced Melanie into the movie – because I have seen so many movies where the older man falls into bed (perhaps love) with a younger woman and finds himself, that I worried that was where the movie was going. Refreshingly though, Thomas and Melanie’s relationship starts out plutonic – and stays that way – even when, late in the movie they go on a road trip together, and even share a room. Delevingne, who is the rare model turned actress who can actually act, does play Melanie more as a symbol of innocence than a real character – a stand-in for the victim of the crime, and for much of the running time, the film doesn’t know what to do with her – having her accompany Thomas on various trips – and then just disappear. But as the movie goes along, she starts to leave more and more of an impression. While Thomas is a schizophrenic character – bouncing from one extreme to another, and everyone else is barely a character at all, Melanie becomes the heart of the movie. If there is a reason to see the movie, she’s it.
Winterbottom is an interesting director – one who bounces from genre to genre, with mixed success. He has made some great comedies – the Trip movies with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon (not to mention Tristham Shandy (2006) with the two, which is even better), good sci-fi in Code 46 (2004), a great period drama in Jude, one of the best modern “snow” Westerns in The Claim (2000), and some interesting biopics like 24 Hour Party People (2002), and political thrillers like A Mighty Heart (2007). But he’s also made quite a few movies that aren’t nearly as successful – a documentary hybrid The Road to Guantanamo (2006), which takes an interesting, complex story and makes it one sided, an adaptation of a great Jim Thompson novel The Killer Inside Me (2010), which skimmed the surface of one of the greatest noir books of all time, Trishna (2011), an adaptation of Tess of the D’Ubervilles set in India, which features a blank female lead and a schizophrenic male one, and probably worst of all, Nine Songs (2005), which flashed back and forth between concert footage and (real) sex scenes, that had nothing to say about either. The exciting thing about Winterbottom, is you never know what he’ll do next – and he often makes very good movies. But by being so schizophrenic, I’m not sure he ever perfects anything – he’s just off dashing to something else. He’s one of the most prolific directors of his generation, and often quite good – but other than The Claim and Jude, I’m not sure any of them are great. The Face of An Angel is much like his career in microcosm – it skims the surface of its material, and then moves on to the next. Some of it works, some of it doesn’t – and then it’s off on something else. It’s frustrating, because I think had he spent some more time on the screenplay stage, he may well have made a fine movie. Instead, what he’s done is made a movie about a filmmaker who doesn’t know what movie he wants to make – and essentially filmed that confusion. It’s interesting – not very good – but a fascinating failure.