This review was originally published during our coverage of the 2015 Leeds Film Festival.
The Face of an Angel sets its sights on the 2007 murder of Meredith Kercher, still an open wound in the public consciousness. We instinctively crave digestible narratives of heroes, villains and victims: characters that these events refuse to provide. Villains become victims, heroes become villains and, after years of analysis, evidence and testimony, we’re no closer to knowing what really happened in that Perugia flat than we were the day after it happened.
Winterbottom chooses to approach the case through meta-narrative by creating Thomas (Daniel Brühl), an analogue for himself who recognizes the fertile soil of a high profile murder in Siena and explores how he could transform it into worthwhile cinema. Early on the character receives some advice that’s essentially the film’s manifesto: “If you’re going to make a movie, make it a fiction. You cannot tell the truth unless you make it a fiction.”
So, Winterbottom’s Meredith Kercher becomes Elizabeth Pryce (Sai Bennett), and his Knox, Jessica Fuller (Genevieve Gaunt). The events of the Kercher case remain the same, but even this slight distance gives Winterbottom more than enough room to launch into a full bore exploration of what this (or any) murder means. If you go into this film expecting a true crime thriller that theorizes on what ‘actually’ happened in Perugia, you’re going to go home extremely disappointed.
Winterbottom’s interests lie in the philosophical: how the media creates narratives, the effect of the people close to the case and what exactly makes bloody murder so compelling. He treats the central murder as a rock thrown into still water that sends ripples reverberating around chaotically. This sets up a film that’s consciously didactic, and characters who don’t really invite emotional involvement and more function as mouthpieces for philosophical arguments.
The meta-narrative soon reveals the knotty paradox at the film’s centre; the more evidence, testimony and analysis we have, the more confused we become. This tightens the screw on our ambitious filmmaking protagonist, sending him spiralling into a cocaine fuelled paranoia exacerbated by the labyrinth of ill-lit cobbled streets that make up Siena. Gradually, Winterbottom begins to tread into fantasy, introducing hallucinatory sequences of medieval wanderers, graphic murder and even an assault by nightmarish reptilian gargoyles.
The director takes a horror movie pleasure in creating an oppressive, gothic atmosphere as audiences and characters spin down a bottomless rabbit hole. The maze-like streets become a metaphor for the endless theories surrounding the murder and gradually, we begin to recognize its fractal quality: more possibilities arise as we get closer to the events.
The murder becomes Schrödinger’s Cat’s brought to life. That famous thought experiment involves a box with a cat inside that can be killed at any moment by a deadly radiation. Or, equally probably, it might not. If we can’t see inside the box we can’t tell; so the cat becomes locked in a state of quantum superposition, simultaneously alive and dead in a state of indeterminacy. This box is the interior of the flat during the murder, the suspects and motives all equally plausible.
So, Knox, Sollecito, Guede and every other character become simultaneously guilty and innocent – the shifting facts, contaminated evidence and conflicting testimony rendering any hard conclusions pointless. This is further underlined by a meta-narrative in which each character is also both fictional and real, something even more complicated by the shifting personalities of the suspects. This detached, intellectual perspective recalls Alan Moore’s groundbreaking From Hell (the book, not the crap Johnny Depp movie) which approached Jack the Ripper from a similar angle.
Winterbottom, like Moore, concludes that objective truth is a myth, settling on recognizing the only concrete aspect of the case – the death of the victim. Thus, it’s Meredith/Elizabeth that haunts this movie. She’s a distant figure we encounter that’s refracted through rest of the female characters. Winterbottom visually links her to the director’s distant young daughter and, most heavily, to Melanie (Cara Delevingne), a smart, attractive British art student in Siena.
Speaking from personal experience (more on this later), the more you investigate a murder the more fleshed out the victim becomes, with tiny intimate details of their lives combining until you feel like you ‘know’ them. Winterbottom has clearly spent a long time researching the case, and so Melanie functions as his (and his character’s) living manifestation of Meredith/Elizabeth.
This haunting even extends beyond the intentional. In a late scene, we see Meredith/Elizabeth’s family giving a press conference concerning the release of Jessica on appeal. To the extreme right of the shot floats a disembodied, translucent brunette; as if the ghost of Meredith/Elizabeth is standing alongside her family. After the movie I asked Winterbottom what it meant. He replied that it was a total accident, an unexpected confluence of reflections and lighting.
Accident it may well be, but for me this ghost neatly summarizes the themes of the film. Trying to divide order from chaos is a fool’s errand. Winterbottom has proved his argument in inadvertently creating his own mirage. The eventual conclusion is that it’s impossible to turn these events into a narratively neat film, because if you take a side you become a liar and audiences will not tolerate a film without a happy ending.
Confession time: when I’m not a film critic my day job is working on high profile murder trials; collating photographic evidence, visiting crime scenes and recording testimony from suspect and witnesses. As such, I like to think I’ve got a pretty good insight into the aftershocks of murder. So, for me, The Face of an Angel ultimately sits alongside media like Moore’s From Hell and Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder as an incisive and accurate examination into the bloody knot of contradictions that forms when one person kills another.
Michael Winterbottom can't solve the murder of Meredith Kercher, but what he can do is reveal philosophical truths that go way beyond guilt and innocence, and it makes for wonderfully smart cinema.