Humdrum thrillers are hardly in short supply in Hollywood. But when this kind of formulaic and intellectually vapid genre piece is directed by one of the most irreverent directors of the past two decades, the result is particularly disheartening—as is the case with Michael Winterbottom’s latest film, The Face of An Angel. A fictionalized account of Amanda Knox’s story, the film is contrived, confusing, and, despite dense plotting, severely lacking in emotional or thematic depth.
Thomas (Daniel Brühl) is a filmmaker whose life is on a personal and professional downward spiral. Having traveled to Italy in the midst of the trial of an American girl—Jessica Fuller (Genevieve Gaunt) is accused of murdering a fellow exchange student, Elizabeth (Sai Bennett), with whom she shared an apartment—Thomas finds the story he craves for his next project. His first contact in the city of Siena is British freelance journalist Simone Ford (Kate Beckinsale) who is one of several English-language journalists covering the mayhem. Thomas’ interest is further piqued when international attention on the story has turned the gruesome murder into a sensationalized endless feeder for the tabloids. Disappointed with the lack of reality and integrity in the coverage of the story, the director decides that fiction might be the way to reach the truth. The film-to-be within the film thus becomes a meta-textual commentary on Winterbottom’s own misgivings about the media.
Winterbottom, whose career has been a roller-coaster ride of excellent highs such as The Trip and dreadful lows like 9 Songs, tries to cram as much as possible into the film, thematically and stylistically. The plotting is so long-winded that the story is virtually forgotten; the sole purpose of every scene is to advance the plot one step further instead of actually serving insights into media manipulation. There is more than one romantic subplot in a film that barely register yet each is worked in so forcefully, like some Hollywood gesture that merely needed to be checked off Winterbottom’s list of cinematic obligations. It is never clear, for example, why the audience is shown Simone’s failing marriage in the background when it is immediately rendered irrelevant within the first half.
Similarly, Thomas’s producers are cursory inclusions, only present so he can bluntly explain his diatribe about what modern cinema and journalism should be. The film lacks the subtlety to imply any of its messages, instead stopping the proceedings so it can hold our hand and lead us to the chalkboard where everything is explicitly mapped out. Worse yet, any attempt at digging deeper into the characters turns into a juvenile rambling about spirituality. If the idea of the multi-faceted, self-reflexive narrative looked good on paper, in execution, Winterbottom has bitten off a far bigger chunk than he can chew. Blending reality and fiction—while integrating flashbacks, dreams, hallucinations, and philosophizing about love, marriage, grief, mortality, morality, and world media—Winterbottom creates a hodgepodge of elements that never truly coalesce.
There are individual elements that rise above the film, though. Hubert Taczanowski’s cinematography is outstanding—crafting a tense atmosphere in Siena’s dimly lit, cobblestone streets, leaving one wondering what might have been had the film spent the time to develop a more intimate sense of the milieu. Cara Delevingne’s performance is a breath of fresh air in a film that feels otherwise entirely synthetic. Her Melanie, an English student working at a Siena bar, is almost an extension of her cool, vibrant real life personality and lightens the film with genuine energy intermittently. But alas, these moments are all too brief. The Face of an Angel is rarely boring, but by the time CGI monsters needlessly appear, it is clear that the filmmaker has completely lost his grip on the story. Sadly, the film runs for another 40 minutes after that.