Directed by Michael Winterbottom. Produced by Melissa Parmenter. Screenplay by Paul Viragh. Release date: June 19, 2015.
I don’t know if it says more about me or The Face of an Angel that the most memorable part of a movie about murder and mystery is a hallucinatory scene in which Daniel Bruhl sees Cara Delevingne eating a heart, but that’s exactly what’s happened with Michael Winterbottom‘s latest film. Based on the real life Amanda Knox/Meredith Kercher case – although with their names and some details altered – The Face of an Angel hopes to explore both the murder case, and the attempt by a filmmaker to create a movie based on the murder case – which is, you know, exactly what it is. Hello, meta-narrative. How have you been?
Perhaps I should have greeted it with “ciao,” seeing as how The Face of an Angel takes place in Italy. Our lead is Thomas (Bruhl), a filmmaker tasked with created a fictionalized retelling of a murder, which saw Elizabeth (Sai Bennett) murdered, and Jessica (Genevieve Gaunt) and Carlo (Ranieri Menicori) accused of committing the act. When he arrives, we’re in the appeals process. He’s greeted by Simone (Kate Beckinsale), a journalist who’s covered the story from the get-go, but who exists mostly just to fill in the audience on what’s going on. He also meets Melanie (Delevingne), who acts as his guide and instant-friend.
These types of mystery movies far too often don’t give us any interesting characters – at least, when it comes to our protagonists. They focus solely on the case, spend every waking moment trying to figure out who did it, how, and why, and don’t actually get to show us what kind of characters they are. The protagonist in this film is actually just as fed up with that as I am, and goes on a rant mid-story about exactly that. He is, one has to presume, a director-insert character. Winterbottom clearly doesn’t want to tell a generic murder-mystery with The Face of an Angel. And he doesn’t. The case is barely focused on, actually. This is much more about Thomas trying to write a screenplay than it is about who murdered whom and why.
The Face of an Angel is a different, more contemplative murder-mystery movie that will reward those who don’t demand all of the answers.
I suppose the issue here is that, while Winterbottom is clear that he doesn’t want to make a typical murder-mystery film, he isn’t exactly sure of what he’d rather do. As a result, we get a meandering movie in which the protagonist stares at screens, bored, for more time than he does anything else, except perhaps cocaine, which fuels his late-night staring sessions and possibly helps him hallucinate, leading to the most memorable moment in the film: when Cara Delevingne eats a heart. There are references to the works of Dante scattered throughout, and his hallucinations wind up feeling like they’re more out of The Divine Comedy than they are from the retelling of a real-world murder case.
The Face of an Angel is a more intellectual and literate film than you might expect given its murder-mystery genre, and yet that doesn’t actually do a whole lot for it. For all its references to art and poetry, it doesn’t do a whole lot with them, as it looks around looking for a direction. We get brief glimpses of what Winterbottom thinks about the way these cases are dealt with, both from a film and a media perspective, but they wind up lost among a sea of nothing. The film is about a filmmaker trying to tell the truth of a story to which he doesn’t know the resolution, and it felt a lot like that was more autobiographical than it should have been. Does Winterbottom know where he’s going? Does he have a purpose here? Ultimately, we don’t get much clarity or resolution, which is the point, but a disappointing way to end a story. Sure, it’s smart and “works,” but if you’re not expecting it – most movies wrap themselves up perfectly, after all – then you’ll be confused and disheartened.
Daniel Bruhl is an actor who probably needs to be more famous than he is, and while roles like the one he has here aren’t going to help him a whole lot, they’re not going to hurt him, either. He’s good here, and he gives his character more depth than was likely written, but the movie around him just isn’t substantial enough to give him a true chance to shine. It’s worse for Kate Beckinsale, whose character is so much of nothing that you have to wonder why she’s even here. Cara Delevingne surprises in her first big part in a movie, adding some much-needed energy to an otherwise drab proceeding. While it’ll take a few more roles before we can determine if she’s a good actor, it’s hard to deny her screen presence.
While it might be a mess that doesn’t quite know what it wants, The Face of an Angel is a different, more contemplative murder-mystery movie that will reward those who don’t demand all of the answers and can tolerate a meandering plot and a lack of direction. It’ll frustrate lots of people, and it’s not likely to be worth the time for most, but there’s an audience out there for Michael Winterbottom’s film. And, hey, if nothing else, at least you get to see Cara Delevingne eat a heart. It’s possible – some might say it’s even probable – that this will be the one and only time that happens.
Bottom Line: The Face of an Angel is a different murder-mystery movie, but with its muddled ideas and meandering story, it’s a tough watch.
Recommendation: The Face of an Angel is a movie for more patient viewers who don’t demand that everything makes sense and wraps up perfectly.[rating=2.5]