Some films don’t quite know what they want to be. The Face of an Angel, the latest effort from British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom, does not have this problem. It simply wants to be everything: a mystery thriller, a romantic drama, a scathing critique of tabloid media, and hey, while we’re on a roll, let’s throw in an allegory of Dante’s Inferno. That’s a lot to chew on, but Winterbottom doesn’t seem particularly concerned with such base functions as digestion.
His raw material is the real-life story of Amanda Knox, the American exchange student who was accused of murdering her roommate, Meredith Kercher, in Perugia, Italy in 2007. There’s certainly a lot to go off of there. Knox was a media mainstay for nearly four years, during which she was first found guilty by the Italian court, then not guilty after a lengthy appeal.
Part of the reason Knox’s trial whipped the tabloids into such a frenzy is self-evident: She was young, white, and female. She had the “face of an angel,” as it were. Her story seemed like the stuff of Hollywood dreams, a cocktail of intrigue and suspense surrounding a rich core of collegiate sexuality. It was only a matter of time before a director got his hands on it and crafted a lean, effective courtroom thriller. Alas, “lean” and “effective” are not words one could use to describe The Face of an Angel. Winterbottom himself might prefer a word like “cerebral,” but this clumsy exercise in metafiction is cerebral only in the sense that it will leave you with a splitting headache.
Speaking of body parts, the chief problem with The Face of an Angel is its tendency to gaze rapturously at its own navel. This is a film that searches for answers by calling attention to the fact, again and again, that this is a film. Thomas (Daniel Brühl) is a successful filmmaker who has been commissioned to make a movie about Knox and Kercher, whose names have been changed to Jessica Fuller and Elizabeth Price. His guide to Italy is a lovely tabloid journalist named Simone Ford (Kate Beckinsale), who quickly sets him straight when they first meet for coffee. “If you’re going to make this film, make it a fiction,” she says. “You can’t tell the truth unless you make it a fiction.”
Pretty clever, right? Winterbottom has provided an obvious surrogate of himself in Thomas, but he’s also supplied his characters with dialogue that rigorously defends his creative decisions. Later, Thomas grapples with trying to find an angle for his movie. “It’s important that it’s a story based on truth, but I want to make something that transcends truth,” he says. We later learn that Thomas has a cocaine problem and isn’t the best father, so he’s clearly supposed to come across as flawed. But one wonders if he’s really meant to sound so arrogant and insufferable. This is a protagonist only a director could love, ostensibly because he is made in his director’s image. The rest of us are left floundering for reasons to root for the guy. It doesn’t help that the talented Beckinsale is relegated to the fringes of the story, which is really about Thomas and his search for … inner peace or something. A budding love story between the two quickly fizzles out, and Thomas hops into a borderline creepy (okay, just plain creepy) relationship with Melanie (Cara Delevingne), a 21-year-old college student and part-time bartender.
Is this relationship meant to be a metaphor, representing how inextricably Thomas has tied his emotions to another college student and her trial? Who’s to say? The Face of an Angel takes too many detours and breaches its viewers’ trust too many times to be taken seriously. The most suspenseful scenes turn out to be dream sequences, which is a fine trick if you pull it once, but kind of a dick move to keep going back to.
We’re left feeling like the editors and producers waiting in vain for Thomas’ doomed film: beleaguered, frustrated, and not sure why we got ourselves into this mess. Winterbottom could have found a less hamfisted way to extract his capital-T Truth from Knox’s narrative, but he flew too close to the sun or traveled one ring too far into hell or [insert classical literary reference here]. Here, he offers only a behind-the-scenes look at the making of a much better film that never materialized, forgetting that the truth only matters when you have an actual story to tell.