Last night I checked out the world premiere of Michael Winterbottom’s latest film, The Face of an Angel, at TIFF. Starring Daniel Bruhl, Kate Beckinsale, and model Cara Delevingne, the movie’s description on the TIFF website quickly makes reference to the fact that it’s inspired by the infamous trial of Amanda Knox, the young woman who in 2007 was accused of brutally murdering her roommate as they both studied abroad in Italy and whose trial played out under the glare of the media. However, while a fictionalized version of that case is the backdrop for The Face of an Angel, Winterbottom clearly has greater ambitions than to tell a salacious story of murder, and The Face of an Angel is much more interesting because of it.
Daniel Bruhl plays Thomas, a film director of fading fame who decides to explore this murder in his next movie by telling a fictionalized version of it. That’s where the film becomes a little more difficult to describe, as the narrative becomes quite meta-fictional and becomes far less about the murder and far more about Thomas’ own demons and the way the story of this murder haunts him. It’s a “movie within a movie”, as the film that Thomas is attempting to write is also called The Face of an Angel and many of the concepts and structures that Thomas says he wants to explore in his movie are on full display in Winterbottom’s own film. Structurally, it reminded me a bit of Spike Jonze’s Adaptation; at one point, Thomas explicitly says that he wants his film to follow the story arc of Dante’s Divine Comedy and describes what that would entail. Sure enough – without giving too much away – the Face of an Angel movie that we the audience are watching plays out very closely to Thomas’ vision.
I give The Face of an Angel credit for going in a completely different direction than I was expecting. For the first half hour or so, it seemed like quite a rote crime procedural that didn’t really grab me. Thomas spends a lot of time talking to Simone (Kate Beckinsale), a savvy journalist who fills him in on the ins and outs of the trial and patiently explains all of the discrepancies in the evidence and witness accounts. For anyone even moderately familiar with the Amanda Knox case, all this exposition feels quite redundant; the real story is beyond the facts and the courtroom. Thankfully, Winterbottom and screenwriter Paul Viragh are well aware of this, and as the story unfolds, many new layers of uncertainty reveal themselves. As Thomas states, the “truth” behind the crime is virtually unknowable, so why jump to make your own assumptions? Why not make a movie about the fact that it’s unknowable?
Some viewers will likely be frustrated by the film’s refusal to draw neat conclusions. (Indeed, during the Q&A after the screening I was at, one audience member tried to press Winterbottom and the cast about their own opinions on the Knox trial with no avail.) It’s far more interested in exploring the various ways that the truth can be refracted – through the bias of journalism, through fictionalized retellings, or simply through one’s own worldview – and how perspective is malleable.
For me, this was by far the most interesting element of the movie, which is perhaps both a compliment an insult. Winterbottom is one smart guy, and he sneakily slips in a lot for viewers to ponder with this meta-fictional approach. (This is perhaps not surprising, considering he also made Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, which tackles similar ideas in very different ways.) However, the actual story of the film never feels quite as compelling as all of these ideas that Winterbottom is offering up. The characters feel like they’re kept slightly at arm’s length from the audience (which is perhaps the point) and while the narrative is interesting enough, it never quite clicks into gear to work wholly as a piece of entertainment. If you don’t find the structure and self-referential aspects of the film interesting, I could see some viewers becoming rather bored by The Face of an Angel.
For me, this is one of those films that I’m finding myself enjoying more after the fact than when I was actually watching it. It’s not going to be for everyone, but it’s yet another movie that proves that Winterbottom – while not always entirely successful – always brings a unique and daring eye to his work.