Saving grace: Cara Delevingne as Melanie.
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Winterbottom’s Face of an Angel is an idea masquerading as a movie

Cara Delevingne stars in the latest film from director Michael Winterbottom, which takes its inspiration from the murder of Meredith Kercher.

The Face of an Angel (15)
dir: Michael Winterbottom

Michael Winterbottom’s tally of one or two films a year since the early 1990s, as well as ambitious television projects such as The Trip, must make him Britain’s most prolific director. The danger is that there can be a lack of rigour, of anything mulled over or thought through, in his material. The footloose, on-the-hoof energy of his most enduring work (Wonderland, 24 Hour Party People, In This World) can look in other instances like a sign of distraction. That has never felt truer than it does in The Face of an Angel. The overwhelming impression here is one of underdevelopment; it’s an idea masquerading as a movie, a daydream that thinks it’s a rumination.

Thomas (Daniel Brühl) is a film-maker who comes to Siena to follow the trial of a young American student, Jessica (Gene­vieve Gaunt), charged with stabbing to death her flatmate Elizabeth (Sai Bennett). Names and places have been changed but any similarity to the Meredith Kercher case is intentional and sealed by a final dedication to the murdered woman. Like Amanda Knox, the suspect in Kercher’s killing, the accused is slapped with an animal-related nickname by the press (“Jessica Rabbit”, rather than “Foxy Knoxy”). But early in his investigation, Thomas is given some advice by Simone (Kate Beckinsale), who has written a book on Elizabeth’s murder. “If you’re going to make a film, make it fiction,” she says. This looks suspiciously like a case of having your true-crime murder mystery and also disavowing it.

Winterbottom’s A Cock and Bull Story was not so much a screen version of Tristram Shandy as a movie about the absurdity of trying to make one. The Face of an Angel is something similar: a film about the fruitlessness of shooting a film about a real-life murder. Sizing up the project, Thomas meets a local man (Valerio Mastandrea) whose job is seemingly to deliver fortune-biscotti philosophy (“Death is the only thing we share now we no longer believe in God”). Thomas also mingles with the press, including a cocky Mail reporter, Joe (John Hopkins), who emerges against the odds as the most charismatic character. “How are you feeling?” Joe asks the aloof defendant as she is led into court. Receiving no reply, he puts pen to pad: “I’m going to call that ‘demure’.”

The rest of the picture follows Thomas as he mopes around reading Dante, developing a cocaine addiction, pining for his estranged daughter and taking for ever to come to a realisation that is obvious from the outset: he won’t end up making the film that his financiers want. He is such a vague, hands-off presence that it’s a mystery that he has any reaction to the case at all, let alone a breakdown. His contact with the proceedings is superficial, limited to gazing disapprovingly at the media hoopla, popping up in court when he has a free afternoon and looking spooked whenever he sees a knife.

He fantasises about killing his ex-wife but if the film is trying to suggest that none of us is definitively innocent or guilty, then it hasn’t laid the necessary groundwork. Thomas is a long way from the cops in 1980s thrillers such as Cruising or Tightrope whose desires rendered them less distinct from their quarry than might be hoped. Thomas learns little about himself that a pal couldn’t have told him over a beer: see your daughter more often. Don’t exploit the suffering of others. Ease up on the coke.

As is so often the case with movies about middle-aged men in crisis, the answer to Thomas’s problems arrives in the form of a carefree young woman with the wind in her hair. Cara Delevingne does a creditable job of playing Melanie, the student who teaches him to appreciate life, especially considering she might just as well be called Salvation or Redemption.

While it is commendable that Winterbot­tom steered away from a straightforward reconstruction, there is no evidence that he discovered what to put in its place. Frustrating an audience’s curiosity can easily be mistaken for keeping them at arm’s length. And invoking a real murder without addressing it directly looks a lot like cashing in on the biographical frisson while doing none of the heavy lifting that the use of facts would entail. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 27 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double 2015

The Writers Museum
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Scot of the South Seas: Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa

Story of author's time with his family in the island nation details a political awakening.

A contemporary once saw Louis and Fanny Stevenson, with Fanny’s son Lloyd, strolling barefoot along a Samoan beach. With their shawls and shells, floppy hats, pyjama suits and banjo, they could have been 1960s hippies. Indeed, the writer mistook the trio for wandering players. But Stevenson was already the famous author of Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. He was wealthy, too. An only child, he had recently inherited from his father, despite the elder Stevenson’s alarm at his son’s lifestyle and choice of spouse: the older, divorced mother of three, Frances Van de Grift Osbourne.

As is well known, Stevenson settled in Samoa, surrounded by what we might now call a “blended” family. Even his mother joined in, travelling from the douce Victorian Edinburgh, tolerating the Samoan sun in her heavy skirts and widow’s cap.

That was in 1890. Samoa was in the midst of a grievous colonial push and shove. Because of its strategic position in the South Pacific, the UK, Germany and the US all maintained an aggressive interest in the archipelago. Joseph Farrell writes in his account of the writer’s four years on the island:

The 1880s were a decade of war and rumours of war, the raising of banners, the gathering of forces, the issuing of indignant notes, the summoning of assemblies and councils on Samoa, and of exchanges of diplomatic missives between Washington, London and Berlin.

In 1885, Samoan chiefs asked to become part of the British empire, to the Germans’ annoyance, but the request was declined. Gunboats were a common sight in Samoan harbours. Sometimes they fired at villages. Despite, or because of pressures from without, Samoan society was descending into inter-clan war.

As a rich white man, Stevenson surely benefited from the imperial adventure. Sailing by, he liked what he saw and decided to return, buy land, build a home and hire servants. Having done that, he could have remained aloof, but instead he soon came to identify with the Samoan people and their cause. He became a champion and activist. It is this change that primarily interests Farrell, and his book examines the effect that Samoa had on Stevenson the writer in the few short years he had left to live. Farrell explores how he responded to the politics of empire-building, as he witnessed it at the sharp end.

To their colonial meddlers, the Samoans were backward savages, inhabiting an imagined utopia of fruitful nudity and ease. But Stevenson soon felt his way into Samoan culture. Even his acknowledgement that they had a culture at all set him at an angle to the imperialists. He found the Samoan people admirable. He wrote, “They are easy, merry, and pleasure-loving” – but also given to warfare.

Having decided to integrate, Stevenson set about learning the Samoan language and, as a way of understanding the situation he encountered on the island, he identified parallels with Scotland. Stevenson may have been a Lowlander and a conservative but, like many Scots, he was seduced by the romance of the Jacobites, and the Scottish Highlands fuelled his imagination. He could feel for the situation in Samoa by referring to the Highlands after the failure of the Jacobite Risings. Both societies had clan systems. In both cases, the indigenous people faced the occupation of their land and suppression of their culture. But the Jacobite times were over and romanticised, not least by Stevenson, and the Samoan situation was happening in front of his eyes.

Taking the Samoan name “Tusitala” – “writer of tales” – Stevenson sought out local stories (chieftains and their families became guests at his house), but he could give as good as he got. He not only recorded Samoan legends, as an anthropologist might, but he offered Scottish stories in return. Farrell writes that he used weird tales of brownies, kelpies and the like to win Samoan friends. The story that became “The Bottle Imp” was told to him in the South Seas.

As Stevenson’s knowledge of Samoa and its problems grew, Farrell identifies in him a new frustration as a writer. It was no longer sufficient to be a romancer. He experienced a desire to address and influence political issues, right from the hot spot. He quickly became the annoying activist, lecturer, reporter and agitator, firing off letters to the Times, ambivalent about missionaries, a friend to Samoan chieftains. As well as championing the islanders abroad, he apparently felt himself “entitled to plunge head-first on arrival into the political affairs of Samoa”.

Farrell clearly believes that the writer’s interventions were right, even heroic. “Injustices casually perpetrated in Samoa, like similar acts of oppression on native peoples in far-off lands, would have passed unobserved… had they not aroused the indignation of this man.” Stevenson’s A Footnote to History appeared in 1892. It’s a poor title, but the subtitle – “Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa” – sets out its intention. In today’s parlance, it is a micro-history. Though the book is little known now, Farrell believes that Footnote can take its place alongside Heart of Darkness as “a radical, deeply felt critique of foreign intrusion and dominance”.

Farrell believes that had Stevenson known the term “racist”, he would have employed it, as it was “an attitude RLS abominated instinctively”. Nonetheless, he felt able to lecture the Samoans, too. Pyjama suits notwithstanding, Stevenson was a Calvinist to the last. Although Samoa had been settled for 3,000 years, at a public meeting he told the Samoans that he deplored their “indolence” and that the remedy to the loss of their land and dignity lay in “hard work”.

Stevenson wrote an estimated 700,000 words during his years on Samoa. He may have become engagé (Farrell’s word) but his imagination still resided in Scotland: it was there he wrote Catriona and began Weir of Hermiston. Although his routine was constantly disrupted by visitors, events and ill health (his own and Fanny’s), his mornings were spent writing in bed, with afternoons and evenings a never-ending round of parties, visits, horse rides, dressing for dinner and good wines. Farrell is careful to explain Samoan political complexities that Stevenson despaired of expressing; the glimpses of domestic life at
Vailima offer light relief.

It came to a sudden end. A note on the effect of Stevenson’s early death on his family and household, especially Fanny, would have been welcome, but these topics are well covered in other books. As it is, the book closes with the cerebral haemorrhage that killed him and the bearing of his body to its hilltop grave.

Farrell declines to speculate how Stevenson might have developed had he lived another 20 years on Samoa. We might remember a different kind of writer: fewer tales and old-time romances, more investigative journalism. Or perhaps he might have combined both by developing a more realistic fiction. He had embarked on that direction by completing “The Beach of Falesà”, which, Farrell writes, “exposes exploitative behaviour… The villains are white, their behaviour towards the islanders reprehensible and contemptible.” Stevenson called it “the first realistic South Sea story”, the first to tell it like it was.

Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa
Joseph Farrell
MacLehose Press, 352pp, £20

Kathleen Jamie’s poetry collections include “The Bonniest Companie” (Picador)

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear