Film Review: The Look of Love

Once more unto the breach that was the Swinging Sexties, all very familiar, but with spot-on production values.

Flamboyant, sybaritic and filthy rich, Paul Raymond was poster boy for Swinging London in the ’60s (and ’70s and ’80s), although most Americans won’t recognize his name. The Brits knew him as a self-made multimillionaire and notorious roué, the impresario who put naked women on the West End stage, the publisher who championed sexual liberation with salacious magazines such as Men Only, Mayfair and Club International.

No surprise that actor Steve Coogan and director Michael Winterbottom, who worked together on 24 Hour Party People, reunited to make The Look of Love, a biopic based on Raymond’s life. “Steve came to me and said that he’d really like to play Paul Raymond,” Winterbottom said about his fourth collaboration with Coogan. “They’re both from the north of England, and they both went to Catholic grammar schools… There were also some other aspects, such as how the public perceive them, in terms of their relations with women and so on.” Consider the “and so on” a wink and a nod to the tendency of Celtic celebrities to overindulge, or as soccer star George Best put it, “I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars…the rest I just squandered.”

That more or less sums up The Look of Love, a straightforward account of the so-called King of Soho and the women who figured prominently in his life. Raymond, born and raised in Liverpool, got his start in show biz working a mind-reading act on the piers. He realized audiences were more interested in his buxom assistant, who sometimes appeared topless, so he and his wife, Jean (Anna Friel), turned to staging nude tableaux, allowed under the English obscenity code so long as the models never moved. In 1958, he opened the Raymond Revuebar, a club in London’s then-seedy Soho neighborhood, where, because it was private, the girls could dance and perform. The Revuebar became a scene, a hangout for the rich and famous, including The Beatles, and Raymond went on to mount musical farces in the West End—featuring naked women, of course, one of whom, Fiona (Tamsin Egerton), became his mistress and then his live-in lover. Raymond divorced his wife, but remained close to his daughter, Debbie (Imogen Poots), who eventually managed his adult-entertainment empire, which by the ’80s had become explicit and tawdry. Debbie would die of a drug overdose in 1992, the year the Sunday Times named Raymond the richest man in Great Britain.

There’s a lot to be said in favor of The Look of Love, most notably the production design, sets and costumes, an accurate and amusing recreation of a time when platform heels and muttonchops made sense. The story would seem to write itself—working-class boy with the Midas touch loses his way on the road to success—except that Raymond was one-dimensional: You can’t cheat the devil if you have no soul to sell. Coogan is a likeable actor, annoying yet self-deprecating and ultimately endearing, but screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh (Nowhere Boy) gives him little to work with. There’s no there, there. Coogan resorts to parodying himself, trotting out signature impressions (Sean Connery) and comic bits. Essentially, he reprises his role in What Maisie Knew, which comes off more successfully, in part because we don’t expect him to carry that film.

Thank goodness for the women of The Look of Love. Friel is terrific as Jean, first as the long-suffering wife, then as the wronged woman, finally as the jaded divorcée who gains a kind of revenge by posing in her ex’s magazine. Egerton, coyly seductive as Fiona, progresses from libertine to girl-next-door. (“I want a normal life,” she pleads to Paul after still another orgiastic evening; “Normal life is for normal people,” responds Paul, revealing the depth of his wisdom.) Poots as Debbie is best of all, managing the perfect combination of spoiled brat (with posh accent), self-involved hedonist, and vulnerable daughter who needs a little love but a lot more discipline. Her Jane Birkin-like performance of the song that serves as the film’s title is the most moving scene in the movie.

The Look of Love stays on the surface, and since decadence no longer shocks or even titillates, that surface has lost its luster. Perhaps the film’s lack of affect was intended by Winterbottom, whose last film, Trishna, certainly showed he can evoke powerful emotion. Perhaps his idea was to pull back the curtain of our world to reveal the emptiness of our age. The strategy doesn’t make for rich drama, however. Paul Raymond turns out to be an expensive, but nevertheless empty, leisure suit.