By Gareth Negus
Paul Raymond was London’s King of Soho, an entrepreneur and publisher who made a fortune out of what he called erotica, and plenty of others called pornography. Raymond was an astute businessman who worked his way up to a fortune, and something of a pioneer in his own field; there are plenty of stories to tell about a man like that. Michael Winterbottom’s new film, The Look of Love, opts for one: a tragedy about a man who had everything, yet lost what was most important to him.
After an opening scene which establishes the downfall to come, we flash back to the 1950s (you can tell: it’s all in black and white) and the start of Raymond’s career. Initially a stage entertainer, Raymond made his fortune by buying and managing a string of London venues; they were mostly adult revue bars, but also included the Windmill Theatre, tempting one to see this film as either a sequel or a franchise reboot of the Judi Dench starrer Mrs Henderson Presents. He was also a publisher, buying and building up magazines of which the best known was Men Only.
Winterbottom is a remarkably prolific, yet also variable, director. After some of his films, I’ve wondered if his work rate is part of the problem – something like Genova might have benefited from a couple more script drafts. Yet he has certainly made some interesting and entertaining films, two of them – 24 Hour Party People and A Cock and Bull Story – also starring Steve Coogan. As star/director partnerships go, they might not quite be De Niro and Scorsese, but they do seem to bring out the best in each other.
Coogan is so closely identified with Alan Partridge that it feels difficult to separate them. That’s even – perhaps especially – the case when he’s playing real people, as in 24 Hour Party People and now here. It’s impossible not to be reminded of Norwich’s most famous son at moments when Raymond looks to camera to welcome us to his world of erotica, or proudly shows a new conquest how the ceiling above his bed opens. But the occasional accidental Partridge moment aside, he conveys Raymond as commercially astute with a flamboyant edge – one he used to good effect to entertain the popular press, as well as a string of women.
While there is good support from the likes of Anna Friel (as Raymond’s wife, Jean) and Chris Addison (as Men Only editor Tony Power), the other central role is Imogen Poots as Raymond’s beloved daughter, Debbie. A spoiled Daddy’s girl who was handed an easy life on a plate yet pissed it away through drug addiction, Debbie could easily be a deeply annoying character. Though the film doesn’t shy away from portraying her neediness, particularly in a scene where Raymond has to tell her the stage show he produced for her to star in is closing due to dire sales, Poots manages to show a vulnerability that makes her more sympathetic.
What is not particularly addressed is whether Raymond’s business had any deleterious effect on Debbie, or any of the women with whom he was involved. Debbie expresses some discontent with his string of affairs, and remarks that her breasts are too small to be featured in her father’s publications, but whether the atmosphere in which she grew up contributed to her eventual addiction is left unexplored. Indeed, the film is almost wholly uninterested in whether or not pornography is harmless adult fun, or a scourge on society. Asked by a female journalist if his publications are demeaning to women, Raymond ponders for a moment before firmly answering “No,” as though the question was a new one to him. We are shown a discussion about how explicit a shoot for Men Only should be, and learn that the resulting issue was confiscated under the obscene publications act, but any further consequences remain a mystery.
Still, a film set over as long a time period as this needs to cover a lot in a concise running time. As in any biopic, many elements will have been skipped over or simplified to strip a lifetime down to the story Winterbottom and writer Matt Greenhalgh chose to tell. But while such films can be on the clunky side, Winterbottom skips nimbly over the decades, often using the device of filmed interviews with Raymond as a storytelling device. While this initially feels like a clunky bit of storytelling, it ultimately works surprisingly well, allowing Raymond and Debbie to express themselves directly to the audience while avoiding the lazy option of copious voiceover.
Not as larky as 24 Hour Party People, less gritty than porn stories like Boogie Nights, the film earns its 18 certificate with a number of orgy scenes (though it’s a lot less explicit than Winterbottom’s 9 Songs). As a portrait of London in decades past, The Look of Love is perhaps best watched alongside products of the time during which Raymond flourished; the grotty sub-Carry On likes of the Confessions… series, censor-skirting pseudo documentaries like Nude as Nature Intended and their ilk. A look back to a more innocent age? Looking at the sad, depressed figure Raymond ultimately becomes, it doesn’t feel that way.
The Look of Love is released in the UK today.