The Look of Love is the biopic of Paul Raymond and although it wants to be a tragedy — I could feel it straining at the leash to go in that direction — it never quite pulls it off, so to speak. Visually, it’s fantastic, with more retro kitsch than you can shake a stick at, should you wish to shake a stick at retro kitsch, and there are exceptional performances from Anna Friel and Imogen Poots, but it somehow lacks emotional heart, or any kind of poignancy. It’s entertaining, but glib and unaffecting, and so astonishingly uncritical it makes posing for porn mags or getting your kit off in some seedy Soho dive seem like the most fulfilling and joyful thing a woman can ever do, which I would dispute. A whole morning in John Lewis, that’s when a woman is happiest. Ask anyone. (In the Oxford Street branch, they have a massage bed on display, which you can lie on, AND NO ONE SAYS A THING!)
But enough of all that. The Look of Love is a collaboration between the director Michael Winterbottom and the actor/writer Steve Coogan, who, together, also made 24 Hour Party People, Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story and, most recently, for television, The Trip, which starred Coogan and Rob Brydon travelling around Britain as themselves, and was totally brilliant. I laughed my socks off, and laughed them off so hard they were never seen again. This, however, is not a comedy but Winterbottom’s and Coogan’s instinct for comedy does keep tripping them up. Everyone’s decent and lovable, including Raymond, and the supporting cast appears to have been drawn from the panel of Mock the Week or QI or similar. Matt Lucas, Stephen Fry and Al Murray all have walk-on parts, while there are beefier roles for David Walliams, Simon Bird and Chris Addison. Coogan, as Raymond, is restrained, and not too Alan Partridge, and his mullet wig has to be the mullet wig of the year (I think you’ll find The Mullet Wig Society will agree, come awards time) but there are moments in the script that allow him to do impressions of Marlon Brando and Sean Connery. Coogan can do such impressions. Could Raymond? (she asks, pompously).
Who was Raymond? On paper, he was the Soho impresario who first founded ‘Raymond’s Revue Bar’ and then built up an empire including property and top-of-the-shelf mags like Men Only, Mayfair, Razzle and all the other titles you used to find discarded in bushes in the park. (Another thing the internet has killed; finding porno mags in parks.) At one time he was declared the Richest Man in Britain and, on flicking through the Sunday Times rich list recently, while cursing myself for never buying a mine in Russia, I noted his two granddaughters are worth £317 million. (This is just for your information, and so you can now curse your own grandfather for not building up a sex empire, the cad.)
The film opens at the back end of Raymond’s life, after Debbie (Poots) has died of a heroin overdose, and he is a broken man, holed up somewhere watching VHS tapes of when she was alive, on some kind of retro telly. It then spools to the beginning and tells the story in a straightforward, biopic way complete with newspaper front pages spinning out at you, and it focuses on the three most important women in his life.
There is Jean (Friel), his first wife and mother of his two children. And Amber (the astonishing Tamsin Egerton, who has legs up to her armpits although not literally, as that would be hideous), for whom he leaves Jean, and who will later rename herself Fiona Richmond. And Debbie, whom he adored, for no particular reason I could gather, as the film doesn’t give us one. Expelled from school, and a failed singer, she’s a self-pitying whiner and would be a write-off, cinematically, if it weren’t for Poots. Poots is so special I think there should be a National Poots Day. It’s a cliché, I know, but she lights up the screen. She just has it.
Poots and Friel; it’s their film, acting wise, with Friel bringing real spark and life to Jean. There may be something ironic in two women leading a film that exploits the exploitation of women, but you’ll have to work out what that irony is for yourselves. (I’m not paid enough to work out irony.) I can only tell you that, the way this film has it, working in porn or strip joints and getting your kit off over and over never, ever involves degradation or coercion. But the main failing is that ‘who is Paul Raymond?’ isn’t really answered. Why, for example, did he always ignore his sons? It’s all fairly entertaining, but doesn’t join up the dots or breech any emotional heartlands. It’s no Citizen Kane, is what I’m saying. But John Lewis is always John Lewis. You can rely on that.