With a premise based on the salacious murder trial of Amanda Knox, the most curious aspect of Michael Winterbottom's "The Face Of An Angel" is that it's not about the case at all. Instead, the filmmaker takes a self-indulgent approach reorienting the project to tell the story of a director researching and writing a movie about the sensational crime and who promptly begins to spiral out of control the more he keeps digging for the truth. A mismatch of genres, coupled with a pretentious attitude regarding the art of moviemaking, this film strains for significance, referencing Dante in the same breath as Knox.
"If you're gonna make a movie, make it a fiction. You cannot tell the truth unless you make it a fiction," Daniel Bruhl's washed up filmmaker Thomas is advised early in the picture. Tasked by a British production company to make a movie about the Knox case, based on a best-selling book —fictionalized here, with the names changed but the basic details remaining— Thomas heads to Italy where he connects with Simone (Kate Beckinsale), a journalist who has been covering the story since it started. And at least for a little while, "The Face Of An Angel" goes through the true crime procedural motions, with a recap of the crime followed by legal proceedings. But it's not long until Winterbottom and screenwriter Paul Viragh ("Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll," "Ashes") go down a meta rabbit hole. Though to be fair to the director, it's not like he didn't warn us.
“We bought the rights to the book ['Angel Face: Sex, Murder and the Inside Story of Amanda Knox'] that tells the story of the trial, but our film is not really about that, so we are always a bit wary of even saying that,” Winterbottom told THR last summer. “Our film is actually about losing a daughter, losing someone close to you; why are we so interested in violence and why are we not more interested in love.”
There is indeed a streak of moralizing in "The Face Of An Angel" that's hard to stomach. Winterbottom clearly disdains the overheated media coverage of the trial, one that he feels backgrounded the life and memory of the victim of the true crime, Meredith Kercher (to whom the film is dedicated). However, Winterbottom's criticisms are somewhat shallow and don't acknowledge that the cross-continental nature of the crime and the superficially sexy aspects of it helped generate interest. But Winterbottom doesn't linger too long on this rumination, and is more eager to switch gears into exploring the literary structure of his film.
At one point, Thomas comes up with the idea of shaping the screenplay of his movie in three acts like Dante's "The Divine Comedy," and in another meta approach, it's what's Winterbottom himself does to his own movie. Sorta. It's a very loose attempt, one that never comes together in any kind of grand vision. The middle "Purgatory" section does feel like, well, purgatory, with Thomas feeling isolated from his young daughter overseas, battling his own drug fueled paranoia and psychosis about the case, while taking up a relationship with a young bartender Melanie (Cara Delevingne).
It's the latter thread that leads into the "Heaven" section of the movie, with Thomas and Melanie spending more time together and hitting the road to visit Dante's tomb in Ravenna (she says Thomas should make a romantic film, because those are always the best ones). And it's here where the true surprise of the film is revealed, Delevingne's Melanie. The model turned actress is a radiant onscreen presence, with a magnetism that flows easily from the frame. And while Winterbottom can't help himself by including a needless sequence of the actress romping around the ocean in her underwear, Delevingne overcomes such indignities with a genuinely playful spirit enlivening this otherwise morose, flat picture.
Shot by Hubert Taczanowski ("The Look Of Love," "The Opposite Of Sex"), the film is lifeless visually, with a grimy visual palette that matches Bruhl's perma-sour demeanor. And the overall tone never coheres, partially due to the shifting nature of the triptych-ish structure. Additionally, due to the film's auntish indictment of tabloid culture, Winterbottom's message is tedious, and as a portrait of an artist grappling with truth and his own personal demons, Thomas just isn't all that interesting. He's his own worst enemy, and it's hard to care about what he's going through if he doesn't either.
Winterbottom works quickly, and as a result his filmography is spotty, and "The Face Of Angel" is best filed in the "also ran" category. The idea of turning a true crime story into a intellectual cinematic exercise is novel, and could be witty and sharp, but 'Angel' never comes across that way. Winterbottom's self-seriousness undoes the potential the film had in terms of a commentary on the very story it's telling. But the director gets so far afield of his attentions, "The Face Of An Angel" is eternally out of reach. [C-]