'The Face of an Angel'
Director Michael Winterbottom’s career has been defined by cinematic experiments. Sometimes they pay off (’24 Hour Party People’) and sometimes they fail wildly (‘9 Songs’), but at least he takes the kind of risks that could go either way. Winterbottom’s latest, ‘The Face of Angel’, is a particularly experimental project even by this filmmaker’s standards.
Oddly enough, the movie it most resembles is Spike Jonze’s ‘Adaptation‘. The final product seems to be more about Winterbottom’s personal struggles making the movie than anything else. Sadly, this film is nowhere close to being as compelling as ‘Adaptation’.
The project springs from a thinly disguised telling of the Amanda Knox/Meredith Kercher story. In case you forgot, Kercher was an American student who was murdered in Italy, while Knox was her roommate initially imprisoned for the crime. Even after months of investigation, the case remained a confusing mess with no clear guilty party. Following years in prison, Knox was eventually freed but no other suspect ever emerged to take her place.
Winterbottom’s film stars Daniel Bruhl as a director (clearly standing in for Winterbottom himself) who arrives in Italy with plans to adapt the story into a movie. (The names were changed, but the details are essentially the same.) His guide into these murky waters is an American journalist stationed in Italy played by Kate Beckinsale. She introduces Bruhl to as many people involved in the case as she can, and Bruhl soon realizes that he has no chance of ever sorting it out. To console himself, Bruhl finds comfort in Beckinsale and her genitals.
From there, Bruhl’s character stumbles through an existential crisis and so does the movie. He tries to force the story into an adaptation of Dante’s ‘Inferno’ (riiiight… that makes sense) and the film follows suit complete with CGI demon attacks. (Yes, really.) Then Bruhl gets disinterested and obsesses over his last failed relationship and the daughter it spawned. Daddy/daughter issues take over the movie at that point once Bruhl kicks off a playful relationship with a young girl (Cara Delevingne) as some sort of twisted surrogate substitute. Every now and then, Bruhl returns to the murder case, and when he does, it seems more confusing than ever. The same could be said of Winterbottom’s film itself, which becomes more unfocused and confused by the minute.
To be fair, that was clearly a deliberate directorial choice. Winterbottom’s movie was inspired by a trial too complicated to deliver anything resembling a singular truth. He can claim that this confoundingly episodic flick is an accurate reflection of the subject matter. To dramatize the murky mystery of the Knox/Kercher story, Winterbottom created a film filled with murky mystery and a few extra drops of existential angst for good measure.
It’s similar to his adaptation of ‘Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story’, which took a novel defined by digressions and turned it into a film that digressed out of the book entirely and into a fictionalized story about that movie’s making. That experiment worked for one simple reason: he had Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon to anchor his wild ideas with their masterfully caustic character comedy. ‘The Face of an Angel’ has no such anchor. The more layers that Winterbottom adds to the film, the less sense it makes. The movie is a labyrinth of disconnected ideas with seemingly no purpose. That might mirror the Knox/Kercher murder case, but it doesn’t make the resulting movie comprehensible or compelling.
‘The Face of an Angel’ is a deeply frustrating movie for a variety of reasons, some intentional and some not. Things kick off promisingly with an intriguing premise, a strong cast, an evocative location, and wild dedication to experimentation. Then, as the whole thing falls apart, the fact that the production is so slick and the performances are so strong only doubles down the frustration. This isn’t some amateurish failure. It’s a grand experiment by big talents that falls on its face. By the end, viewers will find it difficult to care about what’s happening or even remember why they cared in the first place.
The movie is an absolutely mess. Yet at least it’s a mess made by a man whose dedication to experimentation guarantees the occasional misfire. That doesn’t make ‘The Face of an Angel’ any more watchable, but it explains how so many talented people went so wrong.