Film Review | The Face of an Angel

The Amanda Knox case remains ripe pickings for cinema, but Michael Winterbottom's The Face of an Angel is an interesting mix of fact and fiction that falls too short of the mark. 

Better angels: Cara Delevingne and Daniel Bruhl strike an unlikely friendship in Michael Winterbottom’s ambitious but messy film
Better angels: Cara Delevingne and Daniel Bruhl strike an unlikely friendship in Michael Winterbottom’s ambitious but messy film

We often assume that we know the knowledge between fact and fiction, and that this is a clear distinction to begin with – or, at least, we tell ourselves this in order to remain sane. Our daily experience and what we see on the news, and read on the newspaper, constitute fact: films, novels and television shows make for fiction.

But of course, even the most naïve among us will know that this is a slippery assumption at best. The truth – such as it is – is often more elusive than we’d like to think, delivered to us through a muggy filter of biases, assumptions and incomplete thoughts: either our own or that of other people.

This fact of existence – again, as much as we can even call it a fact – is of course rich pickings for a certain kind of fiction, which dispenses with the illusion of realism entirely in favour of experimenting with the seams of illusion we often take for granted. But this is also an ambitious undertaking for an artist… one that will clash directly with the studio and distribution machines out to make a quick buck from easily-digestible – and often, pre-digested – stories.

Inspired by the Amanda Knox case, Michael Winterbottom’s film The Face of an Angel takes the murder of a British student in Tuscany as a starting point, to dramatise the rift between fact and fiction, and our collective obsession with violence.


Thomas (Daniel Bruhl) is a filmmaker suffering from something a professional slump when he opts to adapt ‘The Face of an Angel’, a successful book by American journalist Simone Ford (Kate Beckinsale) about the headline-grabbing incident.

A recent and unhappy divorcee, Thomas heads to Siena to research the film, whose ins and outs prove to be taxing on his already troubled mind. But things change when he meets a British student Melanie (Cara Delevingne). The innocent relationship reminds him of the young daughter he’s left behind, and he begins to reassess his priorities.

The Face of an Angel feels like a textbook example of a roomful of executives dictating the pitch to a film, and hiring a screenwriter and director to cobble it together at the last minute. Only this time it isn’t the cliché of Hollywood bigwigs riding on some family-friendly trend like comics or young adult literature. Instead, this international co-production strains for eyeballs and relevance across Europe, with a (quite literally) ripped-from-the-headlines premise doing double-duty to reel the punters in. But there appears to be neither energy nor conviction among the ranks to carry the project through.

On paper, the concept is a good and risky one: Beckinsale’s Simone boldly signposts the hall-of-mirrors nature of Winterbottom’s project at the beginning when she suggests to Thomas that he should adapt her book into an entirely fictional film – rather than a ‘true crime’ narrative – since the case remains unsolved. This is, of course, what Winterbottom and his screenwriter Paul Viragh are also doing in relation to the Knox case, but the overcrowded and fundamentally underwritten cast of characters doesn’t allow for any of the worthwhile themes to come out in the sharp relief they deserve.

A clear sign that the panic button has been deployed is when Thomas descends into a drugged stupor while ensconced in medieval Siena, and hits upon the (hackneyed) brainwave of structuring his film on Dante’s Divina Commedia. Winterbottom should have seized this as the perfect cue to illustrate, Charlie Kaufmann style, that Thomas has bitten off more than he can chew.

But instead of playing it tragi-comic, Winterbottom plays it in tragic register throughout, shoehorning lazy dream sequences in a lame attempt to liven up the pace. The Dante association reaches its kitsch apex even beyond its initial association with the film Thomas is attempting to make, when it bleeds into his relationship with Delevingne’s Melanie, and the Vita Nuova becomes a ham-fisted symbol for redemption.

The film is dedicated to the memory of Meredith Kercher, the ultimate victim of the real-life Amanda Knox case, whose memory has been shamefully sidelined in favour of the media circus that followed – literally – in her wake. That she deserves a high-profile tribute is unquestionable. What’s also unquestionable is that it should be a more worthwhile artefact than this undercooked, thrown-together mess.

The Face of an Angel will be showing at Eden Cinemas until April 14

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