Cast: Steve Coogan, Imogen Poots, Anna Friel, Tamsin Egerton, Chris Addison, James Lance, David Walliams
Running time: 101 mins
The lowdown: Paul Raymond, Britain’s most successful smut baron, gets the 24 Hour Party People treatment in Steve Coogan and Michael Winterbottom’s latest collaboration. Another Coogan creation to cherish, imagine a less likable Alan Partridge and more exposed breasts than a teenage lad’s internet browsing history. The heady allure and ultimate emptiness of a drug-and-sex-fuelled life is laid bare in a funny, sobering, and fascinating movie, with knockout performances from all involved, particularly Coogan and Anna Friel, Tamsin Egerton and Imogen Poots as the women in Raymond’s life.
The full verdict: Star of many tabloid sleaze scandals, it’s tempting to say Steve Coogan was born to play Paul Raymond.
Both hark from the North, moved to London, were wildly successful, and enjoyed the more energetic trappings of fame.
Crucially though Coogan, from Partridge to Saxondale to Tony Wilson, brings a warmth and empathy to his characters absent from Paul Raymond, a man who according to this telling knew the cost of anything and the value of nothing.
Following a traditional biopic structure, The Look of Love flashes back from an aged, reclusive Raymond, mourning the loss of his daughter Debbie (Poots), to the decades of excess that led him here.
The attraction of Raymond to the filmmakers is apparent; a charismatic sideshow spiv with a talent for exploiting loopholes to stick nudity into circus routines, who transformed the country’s attitudes toward sex and pornography by pushing boundaries of taste and legality, and ultimately succumbed to the vacuum at the centre of all jazz mags and grumble videos, Raymond is a character of which screenwriters and actors dream.
As expected, the period detail is spot-on, from the recreation of 70s Soho (seemingly shot on location with expert dressing), to the tacky-glamour of the Raymond’s Revue Bar and the distinctly English and un-erotic photoshoots of Men Only magazine.
And The Look of Love (renamed from the original The King of Soho for legal reasons) lives up to its name in the central character being all-surface, no-substance.
Through the three main women in his life, wife Jean (Friel), mistress Amber (Egerton) and daughter Debbie (Poots), Raymond is depicted as a man self-obsessed, driven by excess, ignorant to deeper emotion (a scene with an estranged son is one of the film’s best) and most committed to the accumulation of wealth (buying up most of Soho and being valued at £1bn at the time of his death in 2008).
He also transforms his wife and mistress into commodities, using them in his magazine (the latter as sex-adventurer Fiona Richmond) and, unable to refuse himself or his women anything, in a particularly queasy scene chops a line of cocaine for his daughter as she gives birth.
If a criticism is to be made, it’s that Winterbottom never conveys just how big Raymond’s impact was nationwide, making porn, if not respectable, then acceptable as top-shelf rather than under-the-counter entertainment.
Coogan is on his typical top form whether romping three-in-a-bed or isolated in his cold, palatial penthouse, and Friel, Poots and Egerton (shedding her St Trinian’s airhead image) are also note-perfect.
Chris Addison personifies snake-oil charm and prurience as the 70s’ bearded Men Only editor Tony Power, while a roster of other comic actors including James Lance, Simon Bird and David Walliams fill out the other players and hangers-on in Raymond’s circle.
In no way sexy, but utterly compelling, with Coogan and Winterbottom on the verge of becoming Britain’s De Niro and Scorsese.