It’s not much of a stretch to see Michael Winterbottom as a sort of British Steven Soderbergh, a filmmaker who has turned his hand to a huge range of different film projects over his career, which he churns out at a fearsome rate and which are always put together with verve and visual flair, despite sometimes being of uneven quality. While I found Soderbergh’s most recent film Side Effects (2013) at times overburdened itself with melodramatic twists, I might say that this film remains a bit too comfortable given its potential, though both films are excellent at telling their respective stories.
I suppose the extent to which you’ll like The Look of Love (originally to be called The King of Soho, though that title has been optioned by the subject’s son for his own future film project) is a matter of how much you empathise with Steve Coogan’s portrayal of the brooding ‘regal’ central character, Paul Raymond. Your response may also be influenced by the casual (female) nudity that frequently frames the scenes. After all, Raymond was an impresario in the world of adult entertainment, and though his character is always quick to avoid being labelled a mere pornographer, his legacy as filtered through this film is very much one of sleazy softcore magazine titles like Men Only and the kinds of faux-artistic revue shows that can claim a direct lineage to those glitzy Las Vegas acts as seen in films like Showgirls (1995). In a press conference at one point, he is asked by a female journalist if his work is demeaning to women, for which question he pauses briefly before grandiloquently stating “no”; however this statement is immediately undercut through montage, as we skip straight to the sleaziest yet of photoshoots for his magazine, one dominated by many of the signifiers of naff 80s Britain.
As a story which covers several decades from the mid- to late-20th century, it’s mainly style which dates the passage of time: haircuts, clothes, interior decor, fonts and design. The Soho that we glimpse around the (period-dressed and coiffed) characters is largely the scrubbed-up gentrified present day Soho with its hip bars and restaurants, and as an aesthetic choice to avoid the wholesale recreation of a more ‘accurate’ historical fabric, it’s a subtle way perhaps of imbricating into the past Raymond’s more enduring property legacy. We are reminded more than once during the film of just how much of Soho he bought up in the 1970s and especially after the financial crash of the 1980s (and which his family presumably continues to own), leaving it an area largely untouched by the kinds of unattractive wholesale redevelopment that has beset other parts of central London, with enduring institutions such as the wonderful Maison Bertaux tearoom (glimpsed a number of times in this film). It is an area which has reinvented itself just like its owner (himself born Geoffrey Quinn).
Of course, the film’s story is more interested in presenting the more sordidly photogenic side of Raymond’s pursuits. The narrative is framed by his old age and the early death of his beloved daughter Debbie (played charmingly in the film by Imogen Poots), as he reflects on his life up to that point. It’s a choice that ensures that all of what we see of his life is inflected with an underlying melancholy, though even without it, I feel that Coogan’s performance, all hollow-eyed flashy bravado, is strong enough to convey the ennui of his existence. And sure, like Arbitrage (2012) earlier this year, this makes it essentially another film about the travails of a nouveau riche, which you’d be quite entitled to dismiss, except for the characterful central performances (Coogan here as Gere there).
But aside from Coogan (and a nice turn by Chris Addison as the louche magazine editor Tony), it’s the female actors who dominate The Look of Love and really carry the film. Tamsin Egerton enters initially as the coquettish Amber, a showgirl in one of Raymond’s shows, before reinventing herself as Fiona and taking control of her life, though from the very first she’s clearly no-one’s stooge. Meanwhile Anna Friel, as Raymond’s first wife, invests a character who could easily be a nagging shrew with far more pathos and assertiveness. Their character arcs further ensure that Raymond, a man of undoubted ambition but with the Hefner-like affectations of a self-centred roué, never really compels as a role model: as played by Coogan, he is easily charismatic but difficult to really sympathise with. His part in the decline of his daughter comes to overshadow and inflect his other achievements.
Whatever the squalid excesses of the life the film depicts, it’s a compelling story of reinvention which shines an affectionate if unflattering light on a corner of London’s recent history.
Director Michael Winterbottom; Writer Matt Greenhalgh (based on the book Members Only: The Life and Times of Paul Raymond by Paul Willetts); Cinematographer Hubert Taczanowski; Starring Steve Coogan, Imogen Poots, Tamsin Egerton, Anna Friel; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Thursday 2 May 2013.