Let’s be perfectly clear: The Face of an Angel is most definitely not the story of the murder of British student Meredith Kercher, who was killed in Perugia, Italy, in 2007, or the story of her roommate, American student Amanda Knox, who was tried and convicted of the crime along with her then boyfriend. (And then they were acquitted on appeal.)
Well, it is that story. But it isn’t, either. It’s both and neither at the same time.
Okay, look: British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom (The Look of Love, Everyday) is back in the metafictional world he has visited before, with films such as Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story and The Trip , and this time he’s struggling to figure out how to tell a story about a real-life crime for which — as his avatar laments here — neither the innocence nor the guilt of the accused makes any sense. A crime that has become notorious thanks to a media that latched onto its most sensational aspects because there exists an audience that will always devour sensationalism. A crime in which the victim has been all but forgotten and that ain’t right.
But this isn’t a story about the crime. It’s a story about one artist trying to tell a story about that crime that hasn’t been told before, and that doesn’t cater to the basest human instincts, and that might possibly get at the truth.
And the only way to get at the truth is to tell a fictional story. This is what journalist Simone Ford (Kate Beckinsale: Total Recall, Underworld: Awakening) advises filmmaker Thomas Lang (Daniel Brühl: A Most Wanted Man, The Fifth Estate), who wants to adapt her true-crime book about the sensational murder case in Siena, Italy, where American student Jessica Fuller (Genevieve Gaunt: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) is on trial for the murder of her roommate, British student Elizabeth Pryce. Simone becomes his guide into the scrum of journalists huddled around the case, and they’re mostly appalling to Thomas for how they see the matter as black or white. Everyone has taken a side: Jessica is definitely innocent or definitely guilty and there is no middle ground. But Thomas insists — and of course he’s right — that we can never know what really happened. And his reserving of judgment is a problem for his movie, because the studio wants a teen whodunnit thriller that solves the crime, but now he starts developing an art film about a filmmaker who is struggling to figure out how to tell this story…
Is it Thomas who ends up chasing his own tail down a self-referential rabbit hole, or is it Winterbottom? Either and both. What’s flayed open here for all to see is the psyche of an artist who is paralyzed with indecision in the face of a complicated, messy real-life story that he’s terrified of watering down and rendering less interesting and less insightful onscreen than it deserves to be. (I’ve always liked Brühl, and his quiet power comes to the fore here in a big new way.) This is like Adaptation, but it’s not a comedy… although the sequence of suspenseful action that seems to be a little bit of giving in to Hollywood genre forces has a slyly humorous undercurrent. This is a contemplative film that’s pondering the very nature of the difference between reality and fiction, one with resonance beyond a single true-crime court case. Here is Thomas’s middle ground, and if it’s uncomfortable… well, that’s why we so often retreat to fiction, with its easily understandable motives and neat, pat conclusions.
Wait. So, is The Face of an Angel, with no neat, pat conclusions, fiction, or truth? I don’t know. I only know that it is completely riveting, and deeply provocative, and an absolute must-see.