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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So much for "the table never lies" – data unravels football's biggest lie of all

London side Brentford FC are using data to rethink the usual football club model.

It’s a miserable day for practice, the rain spitting down on the manicured training pitches of Brentford Football Club. Inside a tiny office marked Director of Football, Rasmus Ankersen is waiting for his phone to ring. The winter transfer window closes in 11 hours and there are deals to finalise.

Ankersen, a 33-year-old Dane with a trim beard and hair pulled into a small ponytail, seems relaxed. Perhaps he knows that the £12m transfer of the striker Scott Hogan to Aston Villa is as good as done. Or maybe his comfort comes from Brentford’s performance this season. The small west London club sits safely in the top half of the second tier of English football – at least according to management’s own version of the league table, which is based on “deserved” rather than actual results. Officially, on 31 January, when we meet, the team is 15th of 24.

“There’s a concept in football that the table never lies,” says Ankersen, whose own playing career was ended by a knee injury in his teens. “Well, that’s the biggest lie in football. Your league position is not the best metric to evaluate success.”

Brentford are an outlier in English football. Since the professional gambler Matthew Benham bought a majority share in 2012, they have relied on the scientific application of statistics – the “moneyball” technique pioneered in baseball – when assessing performance.

The early results were positive. In 2014, Brentford were promoted from League One to the Championship and the next season finished fifth. That same year, Benham’s other team, FC Midtjylland, which is run on similar principles, won the Danish Superliga for the first time.

Yet in 2016 Brentford slipped to ninth. Despite the disappointing season so far, Ankersen insists the strategy is the right one for “a small club with a small budget”.

Underpinning Brentford’s approach is the understanding that luck often plays a big part in football. “It is a low-scoring sport, so random events can have a big impact,” Ankersen says. “The ball can take a deflection, the referee can make a mistake. The best team wins less often than in other sports.”

In a match, or even over a season, a team can score fewer or more than its performance merits. A famous example is Newcastle in 2012, says Ankersen, who besides his football job is an entrepreneur and author. In his recent book, Hunger in Paradise, he notes that after Newcastle finished fifth in the Premier League, their manager, Alan Pardew, was rewarded with an eight-year extension of his contract.

If the club’s owners had looked more closely at the data, they would have realised the team was not nearly as good as it seemed. Newcastle’s goal difference – goals scored minus goals conceded – was only +5, compared to +25 and +19 for the teams immediately above and below them. Statistically, a club with Newcastle’s goal difference should have earned ten points fewer than it did.

Moreover, its shot differential (how many shots on goal a team makes compared to its opponents) was negative and the sixth worst in the league. That its players converted such a high percentage of their shots into goals was remarkable – and unsustainable.

The next season, Newcastle finished 16th in the Premier League. The team was not worse: its performance had regressed to the mean. “Success can turn luck into genius,” Ankersen says. “You have to treat success with the same degree of scepticism as failure.”

Brentford’s key performance metric is “expected goals” for and against the team, based on the quality and quantity of chances created during a match. This may give a result that differs from the actual score, and is used to build the alternative league table that the management says is a more reliable predictor of results.

Besides data, Brentford are rethinking the usual football club model in other ways. Most league clubs run academies to identify local players aged nine to 16. But Ankersen says that this system favours the richer clubs, which can pick off the best players coached by smaller teams.

Last summer, Brentford shut their academy. Instead, they now operate a “B team” for players aged 17 to 20. They aim to recruit footballers “hungry for a second chance” after being rejected by other clubs, and EU players who see the Championship as a stepping stone to the Premier League.

It’s a fascinating experiment, and whether Brentford will achieve their goal of reaching the Premier League in the near future is uncertain. But on the day we met, Ankersen’s conviction that his team’s fortunes would turn was not misplaced. That evening, Brentford beat Aston Villa 3-0, and moved up to 13th place in the table. Closer to the mean.

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times