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.