When I heard Michael Winterbottom was directing a film inspired by the real-life story of the Amanda Knox case, my interest was piqued.
Alas, I was left in a state of pique.
From “The Claim” (2000) to “Code 46” (2003) to “A Mighty Heart” (2007) to “The Trip” (2011), Winterbottom has consistently delivered unique and sometimes beautifully offbeat works — but the choices he makes in “The Face of an Angel” take us further and further away from the murder mystery and deep into an exasperating, labyrinthine psychological character study of one character who isn’t particularly interesting or dynamic.
Let’s start with the real-life case. Amanda Knox was an American student in Italy who was convicted (along with an ex-boyfriend) of stabbing to death her British roommate, locked up for almost four years in an Italian prison, acquitted on appeal, found guilty again and ultimately exonerated yet again. (The Italian justice system is, to put it mildly, quite different from the American system.)
With a screenplay by Paul Viragh based on coverage of the case by Newsweek/Daily Beast writer Barbie Latza Nadeau, “The Face of an Angel” doesn’t stray far from those basic facts regarding the case — but the focus of the film is not on the principals in the murder mystery but on Daniel Bruhl’s Thomas, a celebrated director who wants to make a movie based on the case.
Thomas meets with producers, financiers, tabloid journalists and people who knew the victim and the accused, all the while fending off questions and snarky comments about his estranged wife, a famous actress who has left him for the leading man from her latest film. He seems on the verge of a full-on breakdown, as evidenced by his increasingly twisted dreams. (The first time Thomas has a nightmare, we don’t know it’s a nightmare. After that, every time things get really weird, we fully expect Thomas to wake up —which undercuts the scenes that aren’t dream sequences, and renders the nightmares less than frightening.)
Thomas is a bit of a stiff and a bore, especially when he’s lecturing crime reporters about their morals even as he’s planning a big movie based on the same case they’re covering.
Kate Beckinsale plays Simone, a correspondent who works for a number of online and mainstream outlets and has been on the case from the start. She agrees to become Thomas’ tour guide, introducing him to key figures in the case, acting as his interpreter and even tumbling into bed with him. Cara Delevingne is Melanie, a pretty and perky waitress who also agrees to help out Thomas and becomes something of a muse to him. But even with these beautiful and smart and helpful women dancing around Thomas, he keeps on puffing his cigarettes and staring into space and rambling on about Dante’s “The Divine Comedy.”
Wait, wasn’t there a sensational murder case to be addressed?
Bruhl’s one of the more interesting actors around, but he’s playing a lump of a pretentious twit who wears out his welcome in nearly every scene he plays. Beckinsale and Delevingne do fine work, even though we see no evidence why either would want to spend so much time with Thomas. The actresses playing the American student accused of murder and the English victim bear a faint resemblance to one another, and neither gets enough screen time for us to get a read on who they are and what really happened.
Occasionally Winterbottom delivers a haunting, effective moment, giving a hint of a different, more compelling film. But then it’s back to the self-righteous, self-indulgent, muddled metaphors.