A self-referential odyssey of filmmaking and its ethics, Michael Winterbottom’s The Face Of An Angel loses its way in a labyrinth of satire and horror.
The Dream Life Of AngelsMark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Spun out of the real-life trial of Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito, convicted and acquitted (then reconvicted and reacquitted) for the murder of British student Meredith Kercher (and dedicated to her), Michael Winterbottom’s The Face of An Angel is, in the first place, a brilliant portrait of the media circus surrounding the trial – with tensions and arguments between journalists reaching fever pitch and a judicial process lurching between twist and turn. But as The Face of An Angel spirals away from the trial, it metamorphoses into a film about storytelling, with production meetings between documentary filmmaker Thomas and his producers, and as Thomas searches in the dark heart of Siena for the right way to tell his story. And like Winterbottom’s previous film Genova or Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, it’s Italy meets horror – only this time both cinematically and literally.
Documentary filmmaker Thomas Lang (Daniel Brühl) is developing a new project, adapting the book by criminal journalist Simone Ford (Kate Beckinsale) about the murder of British student Elizabeth Pryce and the trial of her American flatmate Jessica Fuller. After an interview with her and some heated discussions with the journalists embedded in Tuscany, Thomas accompanies Simone to the trial in Siena, where new developments are expected to come to light. But disappointed with the sensationalism of the trial and the media scramble, Thomas tries to steer his film away from tabloid questions of guilt and into a more metaphorical odyssey of love and desire. But as Thomas begins to lose himself in Siena’s dark, medieval and labyrinthine streets, he meets bright student and barwoman Melanie (Cara Delevingne), a luminescent reminder of the vitality of innocence.
An intriguing examination of the facts and rumours surrounding the Amanda Knox trial, The Face of An Angel is at its best a portrait of the trial and the media scrum surrounding it, exposing the commercial concerns behind the headlines. But reaching for Dante’s Divine Comedy and a curious arthouse horror aesthetic, Winterbottom’s film is strangely unengaging, as it loses itself in a self-referential world of filmmaking, family commitments and fear. Thomas makes for an obvious stand-in for the director himself, and while The Face Of An Angel feels like an unusually honest look at the ethics of filmmaking, it’s also frustratingly oblique – less heart on its sleeve than skeleton in the closet. It’s perhaps the director’s dalliance with the younger female student Melanie – which while trying to resuscitate the beauty and innocence snuffed out by the murder of Elizabeth Pryce, ends up becoming an older man’s fantasy of a relationship with a much younger woman.
While fulfilling in one film Winterbottom’s multigenre, eclectic style, The Face Of An Angel ends up unfortunately as a disappointing mirror of self-obsession. There are flashes of brilliance, as a horror film emerges strangely from the murky waters of something that’s not quite murder-mystery, not quite media satire. But with its domestic dramas and desperate paternal romance, Winterbottom’s film plummets into self-referential dreariness, its plot echoing Thomas’ journey – as illuminating insight becomes lost in a haze of cocaine-fuelled illusions. It’s when The Face Of An Angel struggles for something more profound however that Winterbottom’s film really comes unstuck; a parody of Virgil leading Dante through “the dark belly of the beast” on a metaphorical, quasi-metaphysical quest into the heart of darkness that is only resolved when Thomas uncovers his own Beatrice in the unconvincing shape of Melanie.
It is of course to Winterbottom’s credit that his film tries to find a positive in the murder trial – paying homage in a final-reel fantasy sequence to innocence and youth rather than circling round vicious tabloid rumours of violence and recrimination. But nevertheless, The Face Of An Angel finds its home in an ivory tower of ideas; sadly unengaging on both an emotional and intellectual level. An intriguing puzzle perhaps, but ultimately as wildly unpredictable as the trial itself.
The Face Of An Angel is released on 27th March 2015 in the UK