The Look of Love

26 June 2013 Film

The Look of Love

Michael Winterbottom is a famously prolific and diverse film director. He has made 22 feature films in 18 years, ranging across genres, styles and budgets. His restless filmography takes in the powerful and poetic naturalism of Butterfly Kiss (his 1995 cinematic debut) and Wonderland, and the reworking of classic texts in Jude (based on Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure) and The Claim (based on Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge). Then there’s science fiction (Code 46), docudrama (In This World), fact-based stories (A Mighty Heart; 24 Hour Party People), comedy (The Trip), graphic sex (9 Songs) and shocking violence (The Killer Inside Me).

It’s no wonder, then, that the Englishman’s output is also famously uneven. Unfortunately, his latest film, The Look of Love, is one of his lesser works – a dull and listless biopic about British pornographer and entertainment mogul Paul Raymond, played by Winterbottom favourite, Steve Coogan (Alan Partridge, The Trip).

Given the saucy material – the life and times of ‘the sex king of Soho’ – and covering the swinging 1960s, raunchy 1970s and tacky 1980s, The Look of Love really should be a lot more fun. Raymond was a self-made millionaire who started out with a ‘mind-reading’ act, and built his theatrical and publishing empire on the fact that he could read men’s minds and their desire to look at naked girls. Coogan plays it straight, though we long for laughs as he recites Raymond’s charmless and smutty repartee and watch him lure multiple girls into his mirrored bedchamber (designed, Raymond insistently claims, by Ringo Starr).

The story begins with Raymond, now a sad old man, watching a VHS tape documenting his rise in public life. The classic narrative arc is followed, in which the rich and famous person, having had all their naughty fun and glory, now realises they are lonely and loveless because they betrayed or neglected every person who ever cared for them. Here, those people are three women: Raymond’s tolerant wife and sometime topless performer (Anna Friel); his mistress, the erotic superstar and “naughty vicar’s daughter”, Fiona Richmond (Tamsin Egerton); and his drug-addicted daughter, Debbie (Imogen Poots). The tragedy of Debbie – best represented by Raymond feeding her a line of cocaine as she gives birth to his grandchild – is the heart of the film, yet this thread feels under-developed. 

Winterbottom often asks audiences to endure discomfort and boredom alongside pleasure. If he wanted to drain the Soho smut industry of all nostalgic glamour and fun, then he’s succeeded. Perhaps that was the point all along.

» The Look of Love is in cinemas from 27 June.

Rochelle Siemienowicz