As intelligent beings, we all basically like to think that the truth is obtainable if we just ask the right questions. We like to think that truth is something akin to the ultimate revelation or the be-all-and-end-all in a search for enlightenment. The reality is that the truth is often malleable and subjective- and really only the name we give to what we are seeking. Arguably what we are seeking is something more like understandable narrative than ‘truth’. This is essentially the thought process that Thomas, the central character in The Face of an Angel, grapples with through-out. This is one of the many fascinating, (if occasionally mind-boggling,) themes in The Face of an Angel– intriguingly explored through a great central performance from the ever impressive Daniel Bruhl and director Michael Winterbottom’s meta-textual techniques which meaningfully examine our use of narratives.
Thomas (Daniel Bruhl) is a director looking to make his comeback film about the true life murder of Elizabeth (Sai Bennett) an American student in Siena, Italy for which her flatmate Jessica (Genevieve Gaunt) has been convicted. Inspired by the work of American journalist Simone (Kate Beckinsale) who’s book of the case he wishes to adapt, Thomas finds himself not only getting caught up in the grisly details of the murder but also the dark underbelly of Siena. Through his journey into this metaphorical heart of darkness, Thomas begins to believe that the truth cannot be found in facts or in fiction but somewhere in between.
What is so exciting about The Face of an Angel is its ability to mix genres and remain consistently gripping.
What is so exciting about The Face of an Angel is its ability to mix genres and remain consistently gripping. The film begins as a fictionalised account of a true crime story (the Amanda Knox trial) and using that as a starting point looks at the way we perceive the world through stories; the journalists covering the case focus on the sordid lives of sex and drugs undertaken by the students of Siena and their melodrama of unrequited love turning to murder, while Thomas keeps being asked what his angle is going to be on the story; especially what the ending will be. In searching for his story Thomas becomes inspired by the works of Dante Alighieri, particularly The Divine Comedy and as his deadline for a first draft of the screenplay looms he begins to dabble in cocaine. The warped reality he experiences intensifies and amplifies Thomas’s enthralling struggle with the nature of the truth.
In the film, Winterbottom shapes Thomas into a modern day Dante complete with his own Beatrice (his daughter,) with whom he longs to be reunited. Through this device Winterbottom seems to be exploring the nature of storytelling itself. He suggests that there are no multiple stories, but one story eternally told. If that is the case then there is no ending that can be written, in fact there will never be an ending because the story itself outlives us all. During this journey Thomas develops meaningfully as a character and his realisations add notable depth to the film.
These depths are subtly explored by the way Winterbottom slowly introduces the more fantastical elements. The film begins as a thriller and then gradually it transforms into more magical realist territory as Thomas begins to explore the inner workings of the global narrative. At first there is a dreamlike quality as Thomas appears to step out of the real world and into that of Dante Aligheri but then his cocaine use makes reality blur to the point of a waking nightmare. By this point Winterbottom has deployed typical thriller conventions in a slightly different way as hallucinations appear just as threatening as real life dangers, if not to Thomas’s body than to his own sanity.
Effectively portraying Thomas’s descent is Daniel Bruhl who has just the right amount of curiosity and vulnerability to make his quest feel like a dangerous one. Cara Delevigne does surprisingly well playing a British student in Siena who acts as Thomas’s guide into the underworld but it is Kate Beckinsale who gets the shortest shrift. She appears as a strong female character, a reporter and author, who is drawn in by her attraction to Thomas- surprisingly though the film drops her almost completely as it goes searching for the next idea. Winterbottom is most fascinated with the themes and narrative intrigues but it makes the film as a whole, while expertly crafted, feel like a secondary concern to the ideas being explored.
The Face of an Angel is a fascinating exercise in storytelling with some fine performances and has far too many themes and ideas to fully explore here, except to say that it all boils down to the idea of subjective reality. We believe in a singular truth that is achievable through inquiry and due diligence; if we look hard enough and cover all the angles there will be one definable and provable aspect that is completely free of doubt. It is unfortunate that Winterbottom leaves some other aspects of the film behind in order to explore these ideas however these shortcomings at least help the film keep its focus on a central message; that even the tightest grip on our perceived reality can be brought to question.
By Liam Dunn