Michael Winterbottom’s The Face of an Angel is a mess of tones, but not of ideas, which could well sum up the director’s prodigious but uneven oeuvre. Much like Steven Soderbergh, at least until his recent “retirement,” Winterbottom seems driven by quantity over quality, directing one or even two films a year at a clip comparable only to Woody Allen. The Face of an Angel finds him in a reflexive directorial mode, examining not just divides between reality and representation (one of his pet interests), but the psychological burden entailed in being called to diagnose cultural woes via a real-life post mortem. Thomas (Daniel Brühl) is a filmmaker hired to adapt a piece of true-crime nonfiction, written by Simone (Kate Beckinsale), about the murder of a young woman, Elizabeth (Sai Bennett), at the hands of three, convicted suspects. Thomas becomes obsessed not only with discovering the truth, but finding a narrative model that could serve Elizabeth some degree of justice and credence in death.
The film is based on a book by Barbie Latza Nadeau detailing the 2007 abduction and murder of Meredith Kercher. All of this could be played much heavier and more gruesome than Winterbottom opts for, though the film isn’t without ham-fisted renderings, including a recurring vision Thomas has in which a young girl is playing on a beach, replete with ethereal hymns on the soundtrack. She appears to be an imagined version of Elizabeth as an adolescent—not Thomas’s actual daughter, with whom he Skypes regularly while in Siena, Italy researching for the film. These would be thoroughly silly machinations were The Face of an Angel not busy constructing deeper parallels simultaneously. When Thomas meets Melanie (Cara Delevingne), a young local, she becomes the third piece in an increasingly troubling identity crisis for Thomas, whose role as father, lover, and caretaker are being rolled into a singular, potentially perverse manifestation. Winterbottom compounds this through Thomas’s sexual relationship with Simone, adding a fourth, angelic face to his compendium of tangible nightmares.
Thomas is also going through a divorce, something his colleagues consistently, often incidentally, remind him of. But he’s focused on the work at hand; at a dinner with close friend Roxanna (Nikki Amuka-Bird), he reveals he’s thinking of “using the shape” of Dante’s Divine Comedy as the structure for his film. When Thomas says that Dante was “a man in the middle of his life who lost his way,” he’s not just speaking of Dante, but also himself and also Winterbottom—at least, such anxieties accompany the ecstasy of influence, where the command to do something small inevitably turns into a work that’s grandiose and overreaching.
The same problems plague the protagonist of 2002’s Adaptation.; his writing pursuits drive him to near insanity and, eventually, land him in a thriller akin to those he bemoans. Winterbottom lacks the absurdist wit of Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze, but his convictions are legitimate, especially as the film begins to catalogue various cinematic forbearers, chopping bits and pieces of films ranging from Tenebre to Mystic River without batting an eye. Yet Winterbottom isn’t interested in stitching them into a seamless new form; he prefers a messier, shaggier dog of a thriller.
The Face of an Angel jam-packs multiple aesthetic models into one. The film begins as a giallo, with Thomas functioning similarly to the David Hemmings character in Deep Red. That would be a single track for Winterbottom to take, which would likely mean a film considered to be, at the very least, accessible and tight. That seems to be Winterbottom’s point (one of many): When Thomas is told by production execs that they want a “true-crime thriller,” it’s an impossible task for him, as he’s incapable of thinking through a project without splintering it in at least a dozen different directions, partly out of reverence for his subject, but more damningly, out of an inability to wrangle his own ego.
Winterbottom functions similarly, especially as the details of his own film become increasingly unhinged. Suffering from insomnia, Thomas starts doing cocaine to stay awake; he even does a line immediately following a Skype session with his daughter. He dreams of being chased by a monster in an alley and sees Melanie take a bite out of a beating heart. Midway through the film, Thomas says his own film will be “a dream or a nightmare,” as if the two are synonymous. Perhaps they are for Winterbottom, who’s made a film that plays reasonably as the true-crime thriller many will be expecting, but more overtly as a genuine attempt to construct a philosophical treatise tinged with elements of self-diagnosis.