Tag Archives: Kate Beckinsale

TIFF 2014: The Face of an Angel

The Face of an Angel 2
Last night I checked out the world premiere of Michael Winterbottom’s latest film, The Face of an Angel, at TIFF. Starring Daniel Bruhl, Kate Beckinsale, and model Cara Delevingne, the movie’s description on the TIFF website quickly makes reference to the fact that it’s inspired by the infamous trial of Amanda Knox, the young woman who in 2007 was accused of brutally murdering her roommate as they both studied abroad in Italy and whose trial played out under the glare of the media. However, while a fictionalized version of that case is the backdrop for The Face of an Angel, Winterbottom clearly has greater ambitions than to tell a salacious story of murder, and The Face of an Angel is much more interesting because of it.

Daniel Bruhl plays Thomas, a film director of fading fame who decides to explore this murder in his next movie by telling a fictionalized version of it. That’s where the film becomes a little more difficult to describe, as the narrative becomes quite meta-fictional and becomes far less about the murder and far more about Thomas’ own demons and the way the story of this murder haunts him. It’s a “movie within a movie”, as the film that Thomas is attempting to write is also called The Face of an Angel and many of the concepts and structures that Thomas says he wants to explore in his movie are on full display in Winterbottom’s own film. Structurally, it reminded me a bit of Spike Jonze’s Adaptation; at one point, Thomas explicitly says that he wants his film to follow the story arc of Dante’s Divine Comedy and describes what that would entail. Sure enough – without giving too much away – the Face of an Angel movie that we the audience are watching plays out very closely to Thomas’ vision.

I give The Face of an Angel credit for going in a completely different direction than I was expecting. For the first half hour or so, it seemed like quite a rote crime procedural that didn’t really grab me. Thomas spends a lot of time talking to Simone (Kate Beckinsale), a savvy journalist who fills him in on the ins and outs of the trial and patiently explains all of the discrepancies in the evidence and witness accounts. For anyone even moderately familiar with the Amanda Knox case, all this exposition feels quite redundant; the real story is beyond the facts and the courtroom. Thankfully, Winterbottom and screenwriter Paul Viragh are well aware of this, and as the story unfolds, many new layers of uncertainty reveal themselves. As Thomas states, the “truth” behind the crime is virtually unknowable, so why jump to make your own assumptions? Why not make a movie about the fact that it’s unknowable?

Some viewers will likely be frustrated by the film’s refusal to draw neat conclusions. (Indeed, during the Q&A after the screening I was at, one audience member tried to press Winterbottom and the cast about their own opinions on the Knox trial with no avail.) It’s far more interested in exploring the various ways that the truth can be refracted – through the bias of journalism, through fictionalized retellings, or simply through one’s own worldview – and how perspective is malleable.

For me, this was by far the most interesting element of the movie, which is perhaps both a compliment an insult. Winterbottom is one smart guy, and he sneakily slips in a lot for viewers to ponder with this meta-fictional approach. (This is perhaps not surprising, considering he also made Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, which tackles similar ideas in very different ways.) However, the actual story of the film never feels quite as compelling as all of these ideas that Winterbottom is offering up. The characters feel like they’re kept slightly at arm’s length from the audience (which is perhaps the point) and while the narrative is interesting enough, it never quite clicks into gear to work wholly as a piece of entertainment. If you don’t find the structure and self-referential aspects of the film interesting, I could see some viewers becoming rather bored by The Face of an Angel.

For me, this is one of those films that I’m finding myself enjoying more after the fact than when I was actually watching it. It’s not going to be for everyone, but it’s yet another movie that proves that Winterbottom – while not always entirely successful – always brings a unique and daring eye to his work.

8/10

Snow Angels (2008)

Wintery small-town dramas are not exactly a rare commodity in recent indie cinema, but Snow Angels (written and directed by David Gordon Green) does it well. It doesn’t pull its punches with the gritty subject matter, but if you can get past the bleakness, you’ll find an oddly beautiful film. It stars Kate Beckinsale, Sam Rockwell, and Michael Angarano.

Snow Angels opens with high school student Arthur Parkinson (Angarano) practising trombone with the school marching band when two gunshots ring out from nearby. The films then jumps back in time, and works its way up to that point again. It focuses on two families in crisis. Arthur’s parents are separating, and his co-worker and ex-baby-sitter, Annie (Beckinsale), is trying to deal with raising a young daughter alone. Annie’s estranged husband, Glenn (Rockwell), claims to have made changes in his life, and wants to become part of the family again. He’s become a devout Christian, and on a rare outing with his daughter, tells her that “Daddy doesn’t drink beer anymore”. Arthur’s budding romance with a new student (Olivia Thirbly) and Annie’s gradual re-acceptance of Glenn looks promising, yet all that time, the viewer has that opening scene in the back of their mind. And at around the halfway point, Snow Angels takes a drastic change. To discuss anything after that point would lead to major spoilers, but it’s suffice to say that the last half of the film constitutes a slow, tragic descent, until the film’s shocking finale.

Snow Angels is not an easy film to watch. It’s depressing and bleak. Yet, at the same time, there is warmth to the characters that propels the film along. Green develops every character fully, which is rare in ensemble films. These characters – even those who could potentially be boiled down to “good” and “bad” stereotypes – never seem one-dimensional. Annie is a deceptively complex character. She seems so well put-together, yet she makes awful decisions sometimes, and takes out her anger on her daughter. We follow the arc of her character, and sympathize with her. Green makes sure that we understand the motivations of each character, and that makes the outcome of the movie heartbreaking, but far more rewarding, in an odd way.

The relationship between Arthur and Lila is handled very well, too. Amongst the sadness and fragmentation of every other romantic relationship in the movie, the optimism of these two teenagers is comforting. They’re both kind of geeky, but also very charming, and “young love” is portrayed in a refreshingly low-key way.

The entire ensemble cast is superb. Sam Rockwell has the most bizarre role, and he takes the yo-yo emotions of Glenn and balances them to create a sadly realistic character. One scene later in the film (I’m not giving anything away) is just a long take of Glenn dancing, and while it could have drifted into uncomfortably humorous territory, Rockwell doesn’t let his character become a caricature here, or anywhere else in the film.

Kate Becinsale has a really tough role to play, especially in the second half of the film. She’s solid throughout, whether it be in a rare light moment where she’s flirting playfully with Arthur at work, or a dark scene where she’s yelling at her daughter. The cracks in Annie’s put-together facade are apparent, and as her character crumbles, Beckinsale is there with emotional force to back it up.

Angarano is also a great commodity to the film. His performance is feels very honest. Arthur is a somewhat introverted character, but the few moments of emotional outburst that Arthur has are important, and Angarano’s performance never feels forced.

I don’t really have any gripes with the film. It felt a little bit long, but looking back, I don’t see how any scene could have been removed or shortened. Every part of the film played an important part to the overall story, and the slow development is crucial in order for the ending to have a proper impact.

This is a very carefully put together film, yet it never feels self-conscious. From the cast to the cinematography to the soundtrack, everything works together so well. I think Green has created a dark, atmospheric near-masterpiece with Snow Angels.

9/10