It’s said that Michael Winterbottom is one of the few directors to never repeat himself, though he comes his closest yet with The Look of Love, a frequently hilarious and unexpectedly poignant biopic of British sex mogul Paul Raymond, who opened the UK’s first strip club in London’s Soho, and went on to sell soft-core porn mags while establishing himself as a royal estate magnate. These combined factors caused him to become known as “The King of Soho” (the film’s original title) throughout the latter half of the 20th century.
Though the material is certainly ripe for a full-fat, seat-of-your-pants biopic, Winterbottom settles for something more lackadaisical and free-wheeling, feeling constantly reminiscent of his excellent 24 Hour Party People. Much of the early moments detail Raymond’s rise to prominence in the 1950s with his wife Jean (Anna Friel) at his side, as he seeks to legitimise members-only clubs that featured nude dancers, and as such endured frequent clashes with the law.
Paul, however, is a man of appetite, and as his business booms, his marriage takes the hit, as does his relationship with his children. Jean disappears out of the picture fairly quickly, and Paul finds himself shacking up with a beautiful woman considerably younger than himself, Amber (Tamsin Egerton), though of course, she also has her limits regarding the number of people she wants in her bed.
For all of his success, wealth and happiness, there is an inherent misery percolating below the surface, a byproduct of Raymond’s self-destructive nature; every time he begins to settle, either through boredom or fear, he again hurls himself off the cliff, having to start anew each time until the grave consequences of his inattention hits home in the film’s tragic finale.
Though more could ostensibly have certainly been done with the material, Steve Coogan’s portrayal of the man is so infectiously entertaining to watch that it’s hard to care. At times feeling like a more lurid take on his signature Alan Partridge character (particularly when he mentions that he would never put on a blasphemous nude show, before hilariously explaining exactly how he’d do it), Coogan devours the material with the expected enthusiasm, and has plenty of great supporting actors to bounce material off, namely Friel, Egerton and Imogen Poots (playing Raymond’s aspirational teenage daughter Debbie).
British viewers will also surely get a kick out of the litany of cameos and minor turns that populate the piece; Chris Addison is good fun as an afro-clad, cocaine-addicted magazine editor, while Stephen Fry, David Walliams, Matt Lucas and The Inbetweeners’ Simon Bird all step in and out of the film with blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearances.
The left-turn dirge during the final act won’t sit well tonally for all, and though Winterbottom could have eased us into it a little better, Coogan and his co-stars still sell what they’re given exceptionally well. By the picture’s end, Raymond is viewed as a complex figure; an enormously talented business tactician, an uncontrollable monument to excess, and finally, a beaten, broken man looking for a chance to redeem himself.
Steve Coogan delivers a knock-out performance that renders the central figure in all of his complexity – at once admirable, deplorable and pitiable.
The Look of Love is in cinemas today.
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