The Face of an Angel **
Dir: Michael Winterbottom. With: Kate Beckinsale, Cara Delevingne, Daniel Bruhl, Genevieve Gaunt, Sai Bennett, Rosie Fellner, Valerio Mastrandrea. 15 cert, 101 min
In recent decades, Michael Winterbottom has emerged as among our most prolific and contradictory filmmakers. We know he’s drawn towards the pure sensation expressed in, say, 9 Songs (sex) and 24 Hour Party People (drugs, rock ‘n’ roll). At the same time, he’s prone to putting distancing layers between his characters and us; he may be British cinema’s pre-eminent postmodernist, as hard to pin down as the films themselves. His latest The Face of an Angel proves typically confounding: first announced as Winterbottom’s take on the Meredith Kercher case, it finally emerges as a film about a film about a vaguely familiar overseas murder.
Within this hall of mirrors, we catch glimpses of a glowing autoportrait in the questing form of Daniel Brühl’s Teutonically sincere director Thomas Lang, irresistible to hardened journo Kate Beckinsale and footloose student Cara Delevingne alike. The throughline in Paul Viragh’s script is Lang’s growing alienation from the hacks and bloggers gathering in Siena for the verdict: pointedly less heroic than the newsmen of Winterbottom’s Welcome to Sarajevo, these vultures hover over the corpse, and obsess about the accused’s wardrobe choices. Lang furrows his brow and sheds actual tears, but gets no closer to this truth than anybody else.
What’s around him descends into tail-chasing: we get classical references, movie-biz insider comedy (dimbulb execs suggesting Tina Fey as perfect for Lang’s project), fantasies, nightmares, screen-test footage of young actresses who’ve caught either director’s eye – notes for a film, rather than anything so conventional as a film itself. Winterbottom’s shapeshifting spontaneity has long seemed as much limitation as virtue, characteristic of a filmmaker unable or unwilling to commit to his own better ideas: here, you feel him hedging around his subject, less out of sensitivity than a constitutional evasiveness, an inability to formulate a clear line of argument.
As the film-within-the-film stalls in development hell, so too The Face of an Angel turns circles without really getting anywhere, the work of a filmmaker getting bogged down first in the vagaries of the modern media and the Italian criminal court system, then in his own personal and professional difficulties. His desire to keep the cameras rolling, and produce something to show for his troubles might have been honourable or admirable in other circumstances; here, it just leaves you mildly troubled that a film that started and ends with the name Meredith Kercher should have wound up being chiefly about Michael Winterbottom.
The Face of an Angel opens in selected cinemas from today.