Michael Winterbottom is one of the most thought-provoking filmmakers currently plying his trade. From sci-fi to gritty social commentary dramas, we’ve seen him tackle it all. His latest, Face of an Angel, is a challenging watch which keeps up his impressive track record of attracting big names to small projects with lofty ambitions. The film fails to take off because of the confused messages being sent out, but is still a project that will instigate debate both on the controversial subject matter, as well as the wider issue of ethics in journalism in general.
If it feels like you’ve read that phrase a lot recently, then it’s because you have. The recent Kill the Messenger, starring Jeremy Renner, also took aim at journalistic codes of practise around a real-life story. In that case, the passage of time allowed for a fully-formed film to unfold at a thrilling pace.
This film is “inspired” by the murder of Meredith Kercher and the trial that followed. Those events are still very raw, so the bigger picture is still yet to be seen. The film also rapidly opens up a second front on the morals and motivations of the journalists who push the narrative of these international stories. This knowingly draws in the yet-to-be enacted conclusions of the Leveson Inquiry.
Thomas Lang (Daniel Bruhl) is a documentary film director who takes on a “hot topic” project by adapting a book by famed American journalist Simone Ford (Kate Beckinsale). In the process of meeting the author, Lang begins to investigate the sordid headlines that served as the basis of her book. His research looks into the trial of a photogenic US student who was charged with the murder of her flatmate. The motives for the murder remain unclear, but so do the motives of everyone around Thomas. In his bewilderment at the strange Italian surroundings he finds himself in, Thomas begins to descend into madness and loses himself until he is rescued by young British student Melanie (Cara Delevingne). The bond they form encourages a shift in the film Thomas is making, from one about gory details surrounding the murder, to one of love and happiness.
It’s an impressive cast. Bruhl has been on a hot streak stretching all the way back to his early career, through the likes of Inglorious Basterds, The Bourne Ultimatum and the recent Formula One hit Rush. He’s also just been cast in Captain America: Civil War, yet it is the fact that he is largely unknown still that is part of his appeal. As a nondescript filmmaker wondering down the narrow alleys of a rural Italian setting, Bruhl is perfectly cast.
The addition of Kate Beckinsale as a somewhat cynical hack is more of a quandary. She has undeniable glamour and star power, but hardly comes across as a ruthless journalist who will stop at nothing to get her story.
Delevingne is also an odd inclusion. She does perfectly well in the underwritten role she is given, and there are hints that she will go on to do more impressive things on the big screen, but she’s just not given enough to work with here. It’s evident that Winterbottom wants to say something more about celebrity culture by featuring the cover girl in his film, and arguably deserves some credit for playing down the attributes that have made her famous. It’s stunt casting, but done well. It has us excited for the plethora of projects she has coming up, not least of which is Suicide Squad alongside Will Smith and Margot Robbie.
Winterbottom has noble intentions with this film, but it’s just too soon. The blurring of the line between fact and fiction also blurs the line between good and bad.