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

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Jonn Elledge and the Young Hagrid Audition

I auditioned for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, for the part of “Young Hagrid”. Except I didn’t.

I’ve been dining out for years now on the fact I auditioned for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, for the part of “Young Hagrid”. It’s one of those funny stories I tell people when a bit drunk, under the no doubt entirely wrong impression that it makes me sound like I’ve lived an interesting life.

Except, when I came to write this thing, I realised that it’s not actually true. I didn’t actually audition for the part of Young Hagrid at all.

Technically, I auditioned to be Voldemort.

Let’s start from the beginning. In November 2001 I was in my last year at Cambridge, where I split my time roughly equally between pissing about on a stage, writing thundering student paper columns about the true meaning of 9/11 as only a 21-year-old can, and having panic attacks that the first two things would cause me to screw up my degree and ruin my life forever. I was, I suppose, harmless enough; but looking back on that time, I am quite glad that nobody had yet invented social media.

I was also – this is relevant – quite substantially overweight. I’m not a slim man now, but I was much heavier then, so much so that I spent much of my later adolescence convinced that my mum’s bathroom scales were broken because my weight was, quite literally, off the scale. I was a big lad.

Anyway. One day my friend Michael, with whom I’d co-written quite a bad Edinburgh fringe show eighteen months earlier, came running up to me grasping a copy of Varsity. “Have you seen this?” he panted; in my memory, at least, he’s so excited by what he’s found that he’s literally run to find me. “You have to do it. It’d be brilliant.”

“This” turned out to be a casting call for actors for the new Harry Potter movie. This wasn’t unusual: Cambridge produces many actors, so production companies would occasionally hold open auditions in the hope of spotting fresh talent. I don’t remember how many minor parts they were trying to cast, or anything else about what it said. I was too busy turning bright red.

Because I could see the shameful words “Young Hagrid”. And I knew that what Michael meant was not, “God, Jonn, you’re a great actor, it’s time the whole world got to bask in your light”. What he meant was, “You’re a dead ringer for Robbie Coltrane”.

I was, remember, 21 years old. This is not what any 21-year-old wants to hear. Not least since I’d always suspected that the main things that made people think I looked like Robbie Coltrane were:

  1. the aforementioned weight issue, and
  2. the long dark trench coat I insisted on wearing in all seasons, under the mistaken impression that it disguised (a).

Most people look back at pictures of their 21-year-old self and marvel at how thin and beautiful they are. I look back and and I wonder why I wasted my youth cosplaying as Cracker.

The only photo of 2001 vintage Jonn I could find on the internet is actually a photo of a photo. For some reason, I really loved that tie. Image: Fiona Gee.

I didn’t want to lean into the Coltrane thing; since childhood I’d had this weird primal terror that dressing up as something meant accepting it as part of your identity, and at fancy dress parties (this is not a joke) I could often be found hiding under tables screaming. And I didn’t want to be Hagrid, young or otherwise. So I told Michael, quite plainly, that I wasn’t going to audition.

But as the days went by, I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. This was an audition for a proper, actual movie. I’d always had this idea I must have some kind of talent*, and that Cambridge was where I would find out what it was**. What if this was my big break?*** What if I was being silly?****

So when it turned out that Michael had literally started a petition to get me to change my mind, I acceded to the inevitable. Who was I to resist the public demand for moi?

And so, I graciously alerted the people doing the casting to the fact of my existence. A few days later I got an email back inviting me to go see them in a room at Trinity College, and a few pages of script to read for them.

The first odd thing was that the script did not, in fact, mention Hagrid. The film, I would later learn, does include a flashback to Hagrid’s school days at Hogwarts. By then, though, the filmmakers had decided they didn’t need a young actor to play Young Hagrid: instead that sequence features a rugby player in a darkened corner, with a voiceover courtesy of Coltrane. The section of the script I was holding instead featured a conversation between Harry Potter and a character called Tom Riddle.

I asked my flat mate Beccy, who unlike me had actually read the books, who this person might be. She shuffled, awkwardly. “I think he might be Voldemort...?”

Further complicating things, the stage directions described Riddle as something along the lines of, “16 years old, stick thin and classically handsome, in a boyish way”. As fervently as I may have denied any resemblance between myself and Robbie Coltrane, I was nonetheless clear that I was a good match for precisely none of those adjectives.

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I went to the audition. I don’t suppose I expected Chris Columbus to be there, let alone Robbie Coltrane ready to embrace me like a long-lost son.  But I was expecting more than a cupboard containing a video camera of the sort you could buy at Dixons and a blonde woman not much older than me. She introduced herself as “Buffy” which, given that this was 2001, I am not entirely convinced was her real name.

“My friends always tell me I look like Robbie Coltrane,” I told her, pretending I was remotely enthusiastic about this fact. 

“Oh yeah,” said Buffy. “But he’s really... big isn’t he? I mean he’s a huge guy. You’re more sort of...”

Or to put it another way, if they had still been looking for a young Hagrid, they would have wanted someone tall. I’m 6’, but I’m not tall. I was just fat.

If they had been looking for a Young Hagrid. Which, as it turned out, they weren’t.

The section I read for was included in the final film, so with a bit of Googling I found the script online. It was this bit:

TOM RIDDLE Yes. I’m afraid so. But then, she’s been in so much pain, poor Ginny. She’s been writing to me for months, telling me all her pitiful worries and woes. Ginny poured her soul out to me. I grew stronger on a diet of her deepest fears, her darkest secrets. I grew powerful enough to start feeding Ginny a few secrets, to start pouring a bit of my soul back into her...

Riddle, growing less vaporous by the second, grins cruelly.

TOM RIDDLE Yes, Harry, it was Ginny Weasley who opened the Chamber of Secrets.

I mean, you can see the problem, can’t you? I don’t remember this many years on what interpretation I put on my performance. I suspect I went beyond camp and into full on panto villain, and I dread to think what I may have done to communicate the impression of “growing less vaporous”.

But what I do feel confident about is that I was absolutely bloody awful. Five minutes after arriving, I was out, and I never heard from Buffy again.

So – I didn’t become a star. You probably guessed that part already.

In all honesty, I didn’t really realise what a big deal Harry Potter was. I’d seen the first film, and thought it was all right, but I was yet to read the books; three of them hadn’t even been written yet.

I had some vague idea there was an opportunity here. But the idea I was missing a shot at being part of an institution, something that people would be rereading and re-watching and analysing for decades to come – something that, a couple of years later, at roughly the point when Dumbledore shows Harry the Prophecy, and a tear rolls down his cheek, would come to mean quite a lot to me, personally – none of that ever crossed my mind. I’d had an opportunity. It hadn’t worked out. Happened all the time.

I do sometimes like to think, though, about the parallel universe in which that audition was the start of a long and glittering career – and where the bloke who played Tom Riddle in this universe is scratching a living writing silly blogs about trains.

*I don’t.

**I didn’t.

***It wasn’t.

****I was.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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