D: Michael Winterbottom / 100m
Cast: Steve Coogan, Anna Friel, Imogen Poots, Tamsin Egerton, Chris Addison, James Lance, Shirley Henderson, David Walliams
Presented as a series of flashbacks as Paul Raymond (Coogan) reflects on his life in the wake of his daughter Debbie’s death, The Look of Love takes us back to his early years as part of a mind-reading act, his early attempts at providing a show including static nudes, and the founding in 1958 of the infamous Revue Bar strip club in London’s Soho. From there he ventures into publishing, though it isn’t until 1971 that the publication of Men Only brings him success in that field. With pornography proving such a lucrative business, he stages risqué plays, and in the early Seventies branches out into real estate, mostly in Soho (there’s a scene early on in the movie where Raymond and his granddaughter Fawn are being driven through London and she has to pick out the properties he owns; later the scene is repeated but with a young Debbie).
Raymond is a somewhat mercurial man, adept at persuading those around him to follow in his wake, though his more personal relationships don’t fare so well. As he builds his empire his marriage to Jean (Friel) begins to show signs of falling apart, his affairs with other women proving too much for her (it’s a sign of the times that is cleverly subverted, this was the Swinging Sixties after all). His time with Fiona Richmond (Egerton) shows him at possibly his happiest, even when it leads to his taking drugs, but it’s a relationship that is doomed to failure, especially when her fame begins to outstrip his. And his daughter Debbie (Poots), who he hopes will take over his empire, has dreams of being a performer but she lacks enough talent, and he has to close the show he’s set her up in. From there, Debbie’s insecurities take hold and Raymond’s inability to support her leads us back to the movie’s beginning.
The Look of Love takes a conventional approach to the biopic format, and charts Raymond’s life with obvious respect, but in many ways it feels as if there’s too much of a distance between the movie and its audience for it to be completely effective. Despite the often challenging subject matter, and Raymond’s role in what was as much a cultural revolution as a sexual one, the movie is often like watching a mildly interested TV documentary, one that wants to say something about its subject but never quite manages it. Under the auspices of its very talented director, The Look of Love is still an intriguing viewing experience, and its success in recreating the Sixties and Seventies and the vibe that was around during those times helps bolster the sense of a period when society was changing (though for better or worse is another matter).
Winterbottom is aided by a clutch of great performances. Coogan, not a naturally gifted actor, works hard at presenting the various aspects of Raymond’s often contradictory nature, and – bad wigs aside – does an impressive, if at times awkward, job. Raymond is still a character (albeit one that really lived), and Coogan displays a remarkable intuition at times that offsets any doubts about the man’s behaviour. But there are also too many occasions when he affects a range of comic expressions that come across less as character detail and more as Coogan falling back on tried and tested habits. The actor is clearly having fun in the role, but perhaps a little too much fun.
As his long-suffering wife, Jean, Friel manages to avoid being pushed to the sidelines, and imbues her with a no-nonsense determination that makes the poignancy of her (later) photo-shoot all the more effective. Jean’s relationship with Raymond was mostly one-sided and her pragmatism in the face of so much “meaningless adultery” highlights the fortitude she had, and Friel brings these traits to the fore with an unshowy display that grounds her character completely. As porn icon Fiona Richmond, Egerton expertly navigates the character’s transition from eager free spirit to self-publicising brand name with persuasive ease. Her early scenes, as Raymond becomes more and more besotted with her, show both the carefree willingness to push boundaries alongside the more measured awareness of the benefits of doing so. It’s a much more subtle performance than it appears, and Egerton never puts a foot wrong throughout. As the emotionally wayward Debbie, Poots delivers an assured combination of vulnerability and self-destructive neediness, and her scenes with Coogan show the depth of their emotional co-dependency. It’s an assured performance, and Poots displays a maturity and depth that belies her years.
There’s the requisite amount of nudity throughout, though nothing that would embarrass anyone – this isn’t 9 Songs (2004) – and the casual sexism of the times is adequately reflected in the attitude of Raymond’s advertising associate Tony Power (Addison). The awkwardness and the inappropriate relationship between Raymond and Debbie is shown by their taking cocaine together, and there’s a perfectly judged moment at Debbie’s funeral where Jean accuses Raymond of failing their daughter by wanting her to be like him. The emotional fallout from all this leaves Raymond adrift, and although the movie doesn’t cover his final years, he spent most of them as a recluse.
Rating: 7/10 – an absorbing look at the life of Paul Raymond, The Look of Love recreates the times of his rise to fame in an earnest yet thoughtful manner, yet doesn’t quite manage to be impassioned about its subject; the supporting characters prove to be more interesting, and there’s a great deal of misguided humour that only serves to undermine the tragicomic atmosphere.