In ‘The Face of an Angel,’ director Michael Winterbottom wants to pick apart the Knox case as a cultural moment, not a true crime tale.
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.