The Face Of An Angel
Director Michael Winterbottom Stars Daniel Brühl, Kate Beckinsale, Cara Delevigne UK/Italy/Spain 2014 Language English, Italian (with some subtitles) 1hr 40mins Colour
The Trip To Italy’s paranoid, coked-up cousin
If you’re looking for something that’s going to tell you the ‘truth’ about the murder of Meredith Kercher, this isn’t it. The circumstances of Kercher’s death, and the subsequent trials of Amanda Knox, are (as it openly concedes) the starting points for this film. But the question of guilt, and the particular facts of the case, are not the business of The Face Of An Angel. If it’s ‘about’ anything, it’s writer’s block, depression, early onset midlife crisis and the effects of being estranged from your family. Oh, and Dante and Beatrice.
How does that connect with the death of a young woman? Thomas Lang (Daniel Brühl) is the director whose career has stalled while that of his ex (and the mother of their daughter) has soared. Trying to get back on track, he’s got a deal to make a film based on the murder of an English student, Elizabeth Pryce (Sai Bennett) in Siena. A Rome-based correspondent and author, Simone Ford (Kate Beckinsale), agrees to given him an introduction to the case, driving him up to Siena where Jessica Fuller (Genevieve Gaunt) and Carlo Elias are appealing against their convictions for Elizabeth’s murder.
As Thomas pops between Siena and London, it becomes clear pretty soon that he isn’t interested in making a true-crime film. What kind of film he wants to make is less clear, to the (understandable) frustration of various people he has meetings in with in London. All he seems to know is that he would like get Dante’s Divine Comedy in there somehow. Meanwhile, in Siena he meets helpful student/waitress Melanie (Cara Delevigne) and the sinister Eduardo, a well-connected local character who may well know more than anyone else about the case, but Thomas is reluctant to accept his help. The longer Thomas spends in Italy, the more he unravels. His own demons (increasingly literally rendered by Winterbottom) are amplified by his hefty drug use and also his ill-disguise disgust at the reporters covering the case – a process with which he is at least somewhat complicit (I don’t think it’s an accident that Daniel’s ire is directed at the Daily Mail freelancer).
If the The Face Of An Angel absolutely isn’t a dissection of a crime, what is it? For a chunk of the running time, a writer’s block nightmare in the spirit of Barton Fink or The Shining. But most of all, it’s a Michael Winterbottom film. The shots are beautifully composed, and it’s (as so often with his work) meta-fictional.
Maybe more surprisingly, it’s repeatedly reminiscent of his recent comedy The Trip To Italy. Lots of scenes taking place on hotel terraces with incredible views? Tick. Lots of scenes of men in hotel rooms having awkward long-distance conversations with their estranged families? Tick. A scene of one of the characters singing along to the music playing in the car? Tick. A pilgrimage to sites associated with a literary hero(es)? Tick. Scenes satirising film business meetings? Tick. Our antihero staring in an alienated manner through the windows of his icily cool London flat? Tick. There are, however, it’s true, no Michael Caine impressions here.
For some of the press, the big news about the film is the fact that Cara Delevigne is in it. She’s fine – a very natural, sparky presence. Her character is a bit more problematic – initially she’s Thomas’ unofficial guide/fixer, which is fine. But as time goes, she becomes more of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl – a whirl of positive energy offering a Thomas a possible redemptive path out of his self-defeating depression and paranoia. I feel I should expect a bit more of Winterbottom, although this kind of characters do crop in some of his films. As for Brühl and Kate Beckinsale, I think they’re both well cast – not for the first time, he makes a character more likeable than the writing allows, while she does plausible veteran reporter.
The Face Of An Angel has had some harsh reviews, but I think – not for the first time in Winterbottom’s career – some of those critics were just looking for the wrong film. Like a fair portion of his work, this looks at showbiz and the media. If that seems to insiderish for you, walk on by. But take it on its terms, and the film works – it’s sharp and occasionally funny and obsessive and spooky.