The Look of Love
Michael Winterbottom likes his sexy romps. He also likes his collaborations with Steve Coogan. Now, for the first time, he combines the two! Winterbottom seems to be in constant search of something new, be it style, genre or subject matter. This comes in tandem with an unfussy, get-to-it approach to filmmaking. He rarely makes dross, but one gets the impression that, if only he took the time to finesse his material, he’d be more likely to make films that were consistently really good. Rather than merely respectable. He’s dependably experimental I guess you could say. The Look of Love is a biopic of smut-peddler Paul Raymond, at one point the richest man in Britain. In chronicling his less than salubrious life and career Winterbottom has made a respectable enough movie, but unfortunately, it’s a long way from being really good.
Coogan plays Raymond, from his early days compering nude tableaus at his variety shows (it was only an offence if the girls displayed moving wares) to his rise with London strip club the Raymond Revue Bar. He channels his profits into property (we see him giving both his daughter and granddaughter a tour of his many investments; asked why he has so many, he answers that it “confers respect”). By the ’70s he is staging theatrical revues, and it’s during this period that he leaves wife Jean (Anna Friel), who has been hitherto willing to indulge his loose behaviour, for performer Amber (Tasmin Egerton, pretty but leaving little impression). It’s also the point that he takes on Men Only, a top shelf magazine edited by Tony Power (Chris Addison).
Winterbottom and Coogan have a relatively benign view of Raymond. His debauchery is shown (at least at first) to be cheerful and good-natured, and Jean only takes him to the cleaners (winning the biggest divorce settlement ever in Britain to that point) when his relationship with Amber becomes all excluding. The Men Only antics are seen from as a progression from terribly British naughty postcard/ Carry On humour. Accusations of degradation to women are met with quips and rejoinders from Raymond. It’s all a bit of harmless fun. On the back of the post-60s liberation, it seems that Raymond is able to assume a vaguely anti-establishment position. If we aren’t quite encouraged to get behind him, we are supposed to be amused by his relaxed abandon.
When his revue Pyjama Tops receives scathing reviews, he pronounces “To be described as the worst play in the last 25 years is almost as good as being the best play in the last 25 years, because people are going to talk about it, and that’s all that matters”. He even prominently displays the rebuke “arbitrary displays of naked flesh” on the billboard, the assumption being that all publicity is good publicity. Amber, re-named Fiona Richmond for the purposes of Men Only, asks “penetrating questions” as she travels “around the world in 80 lays”. Raymond picks up where Sid James et al were too innocent to continue.
But the heart of Winterbottom’s film is Raymond’s indulgent relationship with his daughter Debbie (Imogen Poots). If director and lead actor are unable to lay bare Raymond’s inner life (they lay bare nearly everything else, however) they are at their best dealing with his hopeless inability to observe the appropriate boundaries as a parent. Not just with Debbie; this is further emphasised by scenes with his sons. One is from his first marriage, with whom Raymond is either unwilling or unable to make any connection. Debbie’s brother is openly hostile, having moved to Miami with Jean. He dotes after his daughter, and serves her up a succession of theatre projects. Rather than being honest about her failings, he closes a show purely on the grounds that it is haemorrhaging money. When she develops a voracious coke habit, father joins in; his only caveat is that she should consume the good stuff. He even does her a line when she’s in labour. When Amber leaves him, unwilling to compete with his hedonistic lifestyle, we see more clearly the lonely and isolated life he leads. His is the classic story of money not buying happiness. He’s at a loss in the opening scene, set in 1992, when he asked about the death of Debbie (who died of a heroin overdose). He gave her everything she could possibly want; how could it come to this?
If Winterbottom wisely doesn’t push the moral reproof, the problem is that he doesn’t push much at all. This is a smoothly oiled period piece, revelling in the currently fashionable ’70s milieu and taking delight recreating its excess. But it proves resistant to saying anything much beyond the obvious. Coogan is very good, carrying off both Raymond’s charm and sadness. When he takes to the dance floor with Debbie’s friends, he’s like a derelict version of Jason King; talking the talk but with none of the debonair or loucheness.
If Raymond remains something of a mystery, one is partly left with the impression it’s because he was empty somewhere deep inside (uncharitably, one might point the finger at Matt Greenhaigh’s unfussy script; Greenhaigh might have carved himself a little too comfortable a niche as a screenplay biographer). I wasn’t so sure about the impressions though, as that seems more like Coogan schtick (who knows, perhaps Raymond was the Mike Yarwood of the porn world). Poots is outstanding, spiralling vulnerably and affectingly out of control. I’ve read a few criticisms of Friel, but I thought she was fine (and also very game). As for Addison, he’s cast to type as an oily weasel; alas, his enormous beard fails to render him unrecognisable.
There’s a vague feeling of déjà vu throughout; we’ve seen this story before in a variety of incarnations. And Winterbottom’s vision of the seedy ‘70s is rather spruce and swish compared to the tawdriness one would expect; we’re closer to Austin Powers than grim skies and men in dirty macs. Most problematically, despite strong work from Coogan and Poots, the tragedy doesn’t have the necessary impact. In the end, The Look of Love comes up short because there isn’t much going on beyond the obvious; it’s all one long seedy high time, until it’s not. Perhaps because Winterbottom is unable to break from a rather literal retelling of Raymond’s (pecuniary) rise and (emotional) fall. By some distance The Look of Love the least of Coogan and Winterbottom’s hitherto fruitful pairings.