Published May 21, 2015Michael Winterbottom's Face of an Angel is very loosely based on the Barbie Latza Nadeau novel, Angel Face, which covered the Amanda Knox trial in Italy, wherein a young American student was accused, tried, convicted and eventually acquitted for the murder of British flatmate Meredith Kercher. Like many of Winterbottom's films, the prolific director takes this opportunity to challenge and question form and content, using this premise to create a fictionalized film — in which Knox becomes Jessica Fuller (Genevieve Gaunt) and Kercher, Elizabeth Pryce (Sai Bennett) — about what it means to tell a "true" story with only a hodgepodge of sensationalized facts to leverage.
Winterbottom is no stranger to the biopic, however. The Look of Love, Welcome to Sarajevo, A Mighty Heart and even 24 Hour Party People were all based on true stories. These previous works, despite having a unique perspective on mostly conventional storytelling, were played straight, which is why The Face of an Angel is such a peculiar and challenging work. The director has inserted a variation of himself in the story — a recently divorced director named Thomas (Daniel Brühl) commissioned to make a film about the aforementioned murder trial — and made it about the struggle to find the truth of a situation like this.
Initially, he interviews Simone Ford (Kate Beckinsale), an international correspondent that covered the trial and has connections to the media world in Italy. Through her, some bloggers and other tabloid reporters, he learns the basic facts of the case: Fuller and her boyfriend became suspects when questionable social media arose; the covering of the body suggested a female killer was involved; and the police told Fuller she was HIV-positive — she wasn't — to get a list of sexual partners. Winterbottom barely actualizes this, utilizing flashbacks during conversations between Simone and Thomas, but never actually embracing that reality as a concrete storyline.
Instead, Angel plays out as an analytical debate. Thomas constantly questions what type of movie he wants to make — initially, he wants to make one about the reporting surrounding the case; then he wants to make a movie about himself; and eventually a movie about Pryce before her murder — while coping with his own demons. He has a crisis of conscience, not wanting to assert facts onto something that's highly speculative (and something that has already been tainted by presumptive reporting), while lusting after everyone woman that pays him any mind. A British student, Melanie (played by fashion model Cara Delevigne), ultimately inspires the director, making his own quest for romance as much a motivator for the end product as the lives of those involved in the case.
At times, this treatise on constructed reality and the nature of paying tribute to the deceased can be extremely frustrating. Thomas is a painfully narcissistic and gullible character, which is particularly discomforting knowing how many fictional facets of his character mirror the real-life events of Winterbottom himself. While it's thought provoking and even commendable that Winterbottom uses this story as an opportunity to question the authenticity and tactfulness of trying to recreate a brutal murder with several unknowns, it's also debatable that making the story about himself (in a way) was equally tactless. Although, our desire to know more about these girls and the murder ultimately reinforces the thesis of the film, that cold facts aren't enough to substantiate a "truth."
Whether finding creative ways to adapt Thomas Hardy novels or experimenting with the narrative form (arguably, Tristram Shandy is Angel's comic companion piece), Winterbottom does consistently provoke discussion. His films are successful as often as they're not, but what's particularly noteworthy is that even when they're less than amazing (Everyday and Look of Love, for example), they still have something unique and galvanizing about them. The Face of an Angel is no exception, being one of his more engaging works, even though it falls just short of greatness.