Writer-director Michael Winterbottom dedicates his new film, The Face of an Angel, to Meredith Kercher, a 21-year-old British exchange student murdered in November 2007 while studying abroad in Perugia, Italy. The case is infamous, though Kercher's name isn't immediately recognizable. At least, not compared to her alleged assailant. A few days after discovering the body, authorities arrested Kercher's roommate, Amanda Knox, and her then-boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, an accusation that kicked off one of the most raucous media circuses of the new millennium.
Premiering at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival, The Face of an Angel dramatizes the fury surrounding Knox's case, albeit with Winterbottom's meta touch. The director's approach to the Kercher murder case falls somewhere between his classically spun, ripped-from-the-headlines films (see: 2007's Daniel Pearl drama A Mighty Heart, starring Angelina Jolie) and more experimental work like the documentary/narrative hybrid The Road to Guantanamo or Tristram Shandy, an adaptation of Laurence Sterne's “unfilmable” novel that doubled as a “making of” satire.
The Face of an Angel is more than a glossy redux of Lifetime's Amanda Knox: Murder on Trial in Italy. Like the film's main character, Thomas (Daniel Brühl), who embeds himself in the courtroom reporting frenzy in hopes of adapting the story into a Hollywood movie, Winterbottom wants to pick apart the Knox case as a cultural moment, not a true crime tale. The Face of an Angel is an ambitious, not-entirely-successful meta investigation into why anyone would make an Amanda Knox movie in the first place.
When Thomas connects with foreign correspondent Simone (Kate Beckinsale), his guide to all things murder, she makes one suggestion for his proposed film: Fictionalize it. The truth is fully loaded — either audiences wouldn't believe it or they'd come to the table with their own fully formed opinions. Winterbottom takes her advice, paralleling the Kercher murder rather than straight up adapting it. In Face of an Angel, Kercher becomes Elizabeth Price, Knox into Jessica Fuller, the events migrate from Perugia to Siena, and the hazy-but-grisly causes of death are culled straight from Kercher's autopsy reports.
Also intact: The swarm of reporters who turned the Italian murder case into the most addictive reality show that never was. Through Thomas, Winterbottom criticizes the media's role in Knox's conviction, acquittal, and second guilty verdict ruled in an April 2014 retrial. The reporters depicted in Face view Jessica's "did she/didn't she saga" as tabloid gold. Even those “objectively” reporting each day's updates don't realize deeply that they've bought into the narrative.
At after-work dinners, Simone and her colleagues debate Jessica's innocence, weighing clues like they're puzzle pieces from the latest season of The Killing. Everything in Jessica's life is part of the criminal tapestry. Like Knox, Jessica's Myspace page shrouds the defendant in promiscuity and violent tendencies. A YouTube video shows Jessica drunkenly telling a partygoer she'll kill them if they don't stop bugging her. What the reporters drudge up may not be admissible in court, but it makes great headline fodder.
Violence sells. Sex sells. Celebrity sells. Thomas finds himself at odds with the embedded writers and his Hollywood overlords because he wants his Jessica Fuller movie to be true. He wanders Siena looking for answers, talking to Elizabeth Price's friends and employers and soaking in Italian ambiance. The hoopla is seductive, even for an artist looking to cut through the fluff. On a drug-induced spirit journey, Thomas digs up new evidence that, he believes, could nail the real killer. Instead of detective work, it's indulgence. Like the American outsiders eating up every development, Thomas realizes he's indulging in true crime as a form of entertainment. Jessica Fuller is merely a character in her own life story.
Winterbottom simultaneously serves and undercuts his own intriguing thesis with stodgy filmmaking. Face of an Angel is restrained to the point of mundanity. To attack sensationalism, it has to be. A subplot involving Thomas's blossoming friendship with Elizabeth's coworker, Melanie (Cara Delevingne), and his hunt for metaphorical frameworks that could apply to the murder case (he's a big fan of Dante's Inferno) reflect our own hunger for Amanda Knox coverage. Sprawling fiction needs an ensemble of interesting characters, so Jessica's trial does, too. Face of an Angel dismisses its own entertainment value. Fascinating, but not all that enjoyable.
When Thomas accuses Simone of destructive journalism, unintentionally manipulating Jessica's trial with reckless clickbait, she snaps back. Is the alternative better? Should America turn its back to corrupt police investigations and Italy's broken justice system? In an age of pageviews and slapdash reporting, maybe. As a Face of an Angel character says of Jessica, Amanda Knox “is like a film star: we project on her.” When people claim to know the truth about Amanda Knox, take to social media or dinner tables with “proof” and “theories,” damn or defend her, jurisprudence is out the window. In Face of an Angel, reflecting an all-too-true real life, those at the center of a bloody crime are just pieces in a global game of Clue.