Movie Review: 'The Face of an Angel' (2014)

Michael Winterbottom has changed the names and kept the places for his fictionalized take on the real-life murder case of Meredith Kercher and the court prosecution that followed against Amanda Knox. Told through the eyes of Thomas (Daniel Bruhl), a director weathering a personal crisis, a strange mix of fact and fiction mingle to create a dramatic deluge that begets more questions than answers.

What is so interesting about Winterbottom’s vision is that he has in effect created a film within a film and not in the way you might expect. As Thomas struggles to make the movie he wants to about the case, “The Face of an Angel” becomes the very movie he envisions.

Similar to Winterbottom's “Tristam Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story”, the movie we are watching unfold is a movie about making a movie. The difference being that we actually get to see what Winterbottom’s proposed film would be.

That's not all the movie entails. There is a commentary concerning the real-life case and the media circus that swirled around its coverage, along with an illuminating look into the work of freelance journalists, who are depicted scrounging for every nibble of a story they can get, as they ride the wave of public interest for as long as possible.

The world of filmmaking also receives attention as viewers are taken into the behind-the-scenes table talk between artist and executive. As much as Thomas is Winterbottom’s conduit in telling of the travails of getting a movie off the ground, he serves as the audience’s foothold to the human story.

Besides seeing the brutal crime through the eyes of a filmmaker, Thomas is also viewing it as the father of a daughter. As a result, his defenses are up and while members of the press spend most of their time intrigued with the accused, he remains focused on the victim. As a startled observer he’s brought up to speed by Kate Beckinsale’s rabid journo, Simone.

Unlike her, he wants answers and attempts to cut through the ever consuming uncertainty that mars the case, crawling through the murky waters of conjecture with the hope of finding clarity. It’s a goal that proves impossible to achieve.

Reeling from the mother of his daughter’s recent affair with a co-star, he finds diversion in a sordid mystery that keeps his mind busy and his paranoia teeming. He walks around the city to grasp its haunted atmosphere, the air filled with the distorted yells that bellow from its streets without explanation.

As if its central protagonist doesn’t have enough on his plate and the script isn’t already packed with copious detours, Thomas finds solace in his own fling with the married Simone, has a flirtation with a college student (Cara Delevingne) and enters into a downward spiral of drug abuse.

This part of the movie is perhaps the hardest to make sense of. Why a betrayed Thomas would sleep with another man’s wife, knowing the betrayal he’s experiencing, borders on disingenuous. Everything in the movie plays for deeper meaning and perhaps that is too tidy a verdict to reach given the complicated timing and our protagonist’s hazy mindset but it doesn’t quite add up.

As if the movie was not sufficiently existential, Winterbottom brings in “Dante’s Inferno” to give a sort of poetic resonance to an already crowded narrative. Then the drug induced hallucinations start and a movie that goes from being a dramatic thriller, turns into one about the psychological introspection of a man’s internal crisis as an infamous crime serves as the backdrop.

What exactly he’s reaching to understand is lost in translation, as the case that served as the catalyst for his distraction becomes an emblematic obsessive stand-in for his own problems. Similar to his affair with Simone, it seems to be a short lived fixation.

The cinematography brings a dreary disconcertion that is at times, overpowering. While the dream/nightmare sequences are unnervingly rendered and not as jarring to the narrative as one might expect.

Daniel Bruhl keenly carries the film in an underwritten role that relies on his performance to fill in the blanks. He conveys the different facets of Thomas; a traumatized tourist, determined director, depressed dad and coked out womanizer, with conviction and layered sophistication.

Kate Beckinsale’s no frills character, like Bruhl’s, is underwritten. Unlike Bruhl’s Thomas, her character never quite disappears into the canvas of the film, as she flows in and out of the story at random intervals. Beckinsale is nevertheless fierce and believable as she fights to make the character pop.

One of the takeaways the film presents is that the public, though exhausting every last bit of crime coverage, may never learn the all elusive truth concerning a case. One searing line in particular, expertly transmits that notion. Solving the mystery is not always in the cards and real-life seldom ties up the loose ends in a big bow that answers it all.

Winterbottom effectively explores the painful ambiguity that exists within the blurry lines of true crime, the aspect one could strongly argue creates most of the intrigue, that attracts its followers. “Face of an Angel” does not judge those who follow the story closely or those who chase it. It simply points out that doing so might prove futile and warns that in proceeding, you enter at your own risk. Rating: 6.5/10