Lifetime aired its salacious adaptation of the Amanda Knox story—despite complaints from her alleged victim’s family that forced the network to drop a grisly murder scene. Plus, will Knox's parents go to jail for libel?
It's never a good idea to watch a movie when you know the ending. And even worse if you've got a preconceived idea about the way the story ought to be told, especially one as complex as the murder of Meredith Kercher. That's exactly why Lifetime's new made-for-TV movie, Amanda Knox: Murder on Trial in Italy, will likely disappoint the truly obsessed. But for the rest, it offers up a wide array of fascinating and accurate details about Kercher's murder and the lives of Knox, Raffaele Sollecito, and Rudy Guede, all of whom were convicted of the killing.
The movie does a commendable job slaloming between guilt and innocence as it stitches together known details of a very complicated case. It doesn't shy away from controversial facts like how Knox accused Patrick Lumumba of the murder, or just how tough the Perugian police were on the 20-year-old American during her interrogations. The film is also peppered with the perplexing questions that still dog the case, including the staged break-in, the mixed blood and DNA evidence, and why Knox and Sollecito turned off their cellphones at the same time the night of the murder. Lifetime lands squarely on the side of reasonable doubt when it comes to Knox's conviction, but the network also does a fair job showing just why the jury in Perugia found her guilty.
The film has already received ample ink based on the salacious trailers released ahead of the February 21 premiere. Knox and Sollecito are appealing their conviction, and the movie will air a couple of weeks before the appeal reconvenes on March 12. As such, Knox's lawyers in Perugia have threatened to file an injunction to get the film stopped, fearing that it might prejudice the appellate jury. And Kercher's father wants the film banned altogether, rightfully offended by the violent portrayal of his daughter's murder. "Your imagination runs riot as it is about what happened," he said when the trailer first aired. "But to actually see it like this is very distressing. The scenes are absolutely horrific."
Indeed, the movie features globs of often-gratuitous violence around their daughter's tragic death. Sure, it is a TV dramatization bent on ratings about a now-legendary murder, but the CSI-style black-and-white autopsy shots and a disturbing scene where Guede watches Meredith choking on her own blood are unsettling, even for those of us who have covered this case from day one. It's one thing to see the crime scene video and hear testimony about how it might have happened, but it's quite another to watch someone act it out in gruesome detail. Foggy shots of the re-enactment of the murder are drizzled throughout the film—mostly when the character playing prosecutor Giuliano Mignini is making his case, or when Knox's lawyers are explaining to their client's parents the evidence against their daughter. The scenes are nothing like the actual animation Mignini showed during closing arguments of the criminal case, but they do serve to show just how the three could have feasibly committed the crime.
Curiously, the shot that actually sparked the legal action to stop the film—in which Knox wields the knife while Guede and Sollecito restrain Kercher—isn't actually in the film. Lifetime was also careful not to offend the main characters of the real story, showing respect to prosecutor Mignini and his sidekick policewomen, who are portrayed as smart, capable investigators caught up in a terribly complicated crime. There is nothing more than a subtle hint of shoddy police work, no portrayal of Mignini as the crazy lunatic the Knox supporters contend he is.
The movie features globs of often-gratuitous violence around their daughter's tragic death.
• Barbie Latza Nadeau: Will Amanda Knox’s Parents Go to Jail?The Knox family, for their part, is portrayed as even-tempered and wholly genuine in support of their daughter. Marcia Gay Harden expertly captures the essence of Knox's mother Edda Mellas, down to her freeflowing tears and her endearing optimism that every story has a happy ending. There is even a scene in which the Knox family meets with their media manager David Marriott to plan the public-relations offensive, complete with someone sporting a "Free Amanda" T-shirt. Hayden Pantierre does an admirable job playing the quirky Seattle native, even though she passed up an opportunity to meet Knox in prison last year. The film questions Knox's awareness of what was happening around her and hints at a genuine love story between her and Sollecito. Suggestions that Knox could be guilty are rampant, but there are just as many implying she could have simply been in the wrong place doing the wrong things at the wrong time.
Fortunately, Lifetime also focuses a fair amount of attention on Meredith, painting a portrait of a bright and beautiful young woman who was far more serious than her American roommate, but who had an infectious sense of humor and enviable charm. That careful attention to her charisma makes her murder all the more tragic. In several scenes, the movie foreshadows a conflict between the two women, but in each case, it's not enough to show true motive for murder—a point very much in line with the real story. Special attention was given to the mothers of both Kercher and Knox, as well. A scene in which Kercher's weeping mother Arline takes the stand was as true to the actual testimony as possible. So is the scene in which Mrs. Kercher stares at Edda after the guilty verdict was read. In the movie, like in real life on the night of the verdict, the nonverbal communication between the mothers of both victim and convicted killer was chilling.
The portrayal of Perugia was on target considering it was actually filmed outside of Rome. But they got the idea right, complete with drug dealers on the church steps and the hazy marijuana and hashish fog under which many students live. Knox and Sollecito are constantly making out and often sharing a joint in the film. But like history buffs watching Ben-Hur in search of wristwatches on the gladiators, those of us who know this story inside and out can't help but notice a few trivial inaccuracies.
For one, the accents sound more Transylvanian than Italian, and in one case an investigator questioning Sollecito sounds bafflingly Irish. Rudy's character was far too big and bulky, and Lumumba's sounded Jamaican. There are cameras in the courtroom during testimony, and Knox's character shuffling through a swarm of reporters on her way to a police van, neither of which ever happened. When Sollecito prepares a quick meal for Knox on the night they meet, he whips up a risotto, one of the most labor-intensive recipes in the Italian kitchen, not the sort of thing you can quickly throw together to impress a woman. There is another scene in which Meredith pours a cup of coffee from a carafe in the kitchen she shares with Knox. By anyone's account, Meredith would surely have been drinking tea.
The journalist scrums, however, were embarrassingly true to reality, and so was the final analysis. As someone who spent three years covering this tragic case on the ground in Perugia, I admittedly watched this flick with a more skeptical eye than most will. (This is even though I was interviewed as an expert on the case for the hourlong Lifetime documentary, Behind the Headlines that will follow it.) My own Beast Book on this case, Angel Face, has also been optioned for a film, which is in the early stages of development. I am not exactly an impartial bystander at this point, and my opinions are well documented in my book and throughout my coverage for both Newsweek and The Daily Beast. But I did appreciate Lifetime's adherence to the undisputed facts of this case, as controversial as they are. I chuckled at the exaggerated portrayal of my pseudonym'd colleague "Nick Roberts" and I cringed at the rookie mistakes that are a natural part of dipping into a story at the end and not the beginning.
"There are two sides to every story," the trailer leads. And Lifetime's portrayal does a fair job showing both. No easy task.
Barbie Latza Nadeau, author of the Beast Book Angel Face, about Amanda Knox, has reported from Italy for Newsweek since 1997 and for The Daily Beast since 2009. She is a frequent contributor to CNN Traveller, Departures, Discovery and Grazia. She appears regularly on CNN, BBC and NPR.