The Look of Love (Michael Winterbottom – UK/France) 101 minutes
Steve Coogan and Michael Winterbottom’s fourth collaboration looks oddly anachronistic. Of course, a biopic of The King of Soho, Paul Raymond, could not help but hark back to the past, but its raison d’être still seems dated, even if Raymond did die only five years ago. The Look of Love (so titled after Raymond’s son blocked The King of Soho) starts with Raymond (né Geoffrey O’Brien) getting his nude revue up and running in the 1950s, circumventing the Lord Chamberlain’s restrictions by making sure the topless ladies do not move. The Lord Chamberlain’s demise several years later clears the way for Raymond to expand his empire, learning, as he puts it, that the public is willing to pay ‘lots of money to see women wear very little.’
Raymond is, unsurprisingly, an adulterous cad, but his wife Jean (Anna Friel) tolerates it well enough, until, that is, one of his conquests (Tamsin Egerton) is tempting enough for him to walk out on her. Eventually the Raymonds split up and Paul takes pride in correcting journalists by saying his is the most expensive divorce settlement in British legal history. Even his greatest reversal is a source of pride for a lad from Liverpool who ‘came to London with just two bob in his pocket’ (Raymond’s background though was solidly middle-class).
All this is enunciated in very Alan Partridge fashion by Coogan (as is much throughout as his boast to visitors that his bachelor shag pad was designed by Ringo Starr); this is one of the film’s many problems. In Winterbottom’s Tristram Shandy adaptation A Cock and Bull Story, Coogan played himself, forever bristling at people’s references to Partridge within his presence. In reality Coogan is clearly more at ease with it if this film is anything to go by. That is understandable as Partridge is Britain’s greatest comic creation of the past two decades but here the effect is wearying. More so as it throws into calamitous relief the efforts at pathos when Raymond’s daughter, and chosen heir, Debbie (Imogen Poots) dies of a drug overdose.
The film’s structure and trajectory also have an over-familiar air to them – the passing of time is marked by the most obvious of chart hits (if it’s Roxy Music, it must be 1974; if it’s Soft Cell, it must be 1982) and the film is a string of montages of drug-taking, group sex and getting filthy rich. It’s all very Goodfellas or Boogie Nights but The Look of Love has none of the spark of either of those films and is very much catching a ride on their coattails. It also lacks the force of The People Vs Larry Flynt as Raymond never really approached Flynt’s notoriety or cultural influence. This is largely down to Raymond himself – he was a reluctant smut merchant, denying all the time he was a pornographer (just as Richard Desmond later would), and buying up property all over the City of London and elsewhere in an effort to edge himself back towards respectability. In fairness, the film understands this and dramatises this shift quite well. But Raymond’s own self-willed obsolescence makes the film’s very relevance moot.
Raymond became a virtual recluse after Debbie’s death in 1992, by which time he had become Britain’s richest man. Long after Raymond’s tit-and-arse empire was usurped by the internet and rival upstarts such as Peter Stringfellow, his property portfolios matured in silence and continue to be a source of enormous wealth. Raymond’s cultural legacy is now negligible, even if his famous Raymond Revue Bar and other holdings still exist in Soho, and it is hard to muster much interest in what is a long-forgotten aspect of prurient British pop culture. The film might have had more impact as a made-for-TV effort in the early nineties. As it stands, The Look of Love just leaves you asking, ‘why bother?’