Director Michael Winterbottom’s latest uses the Amanda Knox murder trial as a jumping off point for a soul searching, heart wrenching meditation about loss, parenthood and remembering the dead. The Face of an Angel may be a fictionalized account of that infamous case, but it’s not solely about it. The Face of an Angel is actually about one man suffering from depression and how the horrible events surrounding the murder trial of the fictional Amanda Knox sends him down a rabbit hole of despair.
Daniel Brühl (Rush, Inglorious Basterds) stars as Thomas Lang, a film director looking for a career comeback after his last few movies flopped, and a personal comeback after he discovered his wife cheating on him. He leaves his home in Los Angeles for Italy for an opportunity to direct a true crime drama about the murder trial of Jessica Fuller, accused of stabbing to death her flat mate, Elizabeth Pryce. Jessica is a pretty young American who has captured the attention of the press and tabloids. Could this innocent looking girl really be a heartless killer? That’s what Thomas is sent by an opportunistic movie producer to find out.
He meets up with an American journalist played by Kate Beckinsale, who introduces him to jaded journalists all looking for an angle to sell newspapers or get Internet hits. Jessica is the star of every story, and Thomas quickly realizes that one person’s voice is missing from all of the news stories. We hear Jessica give her account, we hear Jessica’s boyfriend, we even hear from Elizabeth’s boyfriend at one point, but poor Elizabeth, the victim, is lost in all of the noise, and Thomas is disgusted and disturbed.
At the same time, he aches for his young daughter that he left behind with her mother in Los Angeles. The loss of Elizabeth affects him on a paternal level and he struggles to cope with everything in his life falling apart. Thomas begins drinking heavily and snorting cocaine, he gets caught up in reading Dante’s Inferno and doesn’t sleep much. As a father, he empathizes with Elizabeth’s family and wonders why no one is mourning the loss of a young woman’s life. Soon, making a docudrama that glamorizes a tragedy becomes less appealing than mending the wounds in his life.
He meets a young college student (played by up and comer Cara Delevingne), who tries to reverse his decent into depression. Through her friendship, Thomas has a chance to find his way out of the darkness.
The Face of an Angel is most compelling when it uses Thomas’ pain to question how the media and public placed all of the focus of the pretty American girl and offer little information about her flat mate, the victim. That is Winterbottom’s whole point to the film, as indicated by the dedication to Meredith Kercher. You may remember her as the victim in the Amanda Knox murder trial. The movie gets bogged down in the middle, as Thomas’ drug paranoia and lack of sleep lead to weird dreams and hallucinations. A subplot devoted to Thomas convincing himself that a local real estate broker may be involved with the murder goes nowhere.
Brühl is at his best when he’s pining for his daughter and railing against the cynical life of the media. The actor carries the weight of the film and this sad story on his shoulders and does it with grace. The Face of an Angel as a whole isn’t perfect, but he is great. The final act of the film is beautiful, though, and worth seeing. And if the score by Harry Escott ever becomes available, it will be at the top of my “must buy” list. Escott’s music is evocative and haunting. One of the best I’ve heard this year.
The Face of an Angel is in theaters now.