Bittersweet biopic – The Look of Love

I saw this at an advance screening back in November 2012. It doesn’t come out till the start of March in the UK, but as that’s realistically not that far off, let’s review!

The Look of Love is about the life and career of Paul Raymond aka the ‘King of Soho’, played by Steve Coogan. Born and raised in Liverpool, Raymond moved to London and opened Britain’s first strip club – the Raymond Revuebar – in 1958.

Featuring acts such as nude dancers performing with snakes, his club often grabbed headlines and incurred the wrath of authorities for its controversial nature. Yet, as you’d expect, this increased its popularity and success.

Within a few years Raymond expanded into publishing and bought adult title Men Only in 1971. However, the real reason he gained the ‘King of Soho’ name in the 1970s was down to property. Building his portfolio up purchasing much of Soho, he passed a fortune on to his grandchildren estimated upwards of £650m.

tamsin egerton steve cooganThe setup
Directed by Michael Winterbottom and starring Steve Coogan, the film features a strong cast including Anna Friel, Imogen Poots and Chris Addison.

It’s also a bit of a showcase for British comedy, with appearances from David Walliams, Stephen Fry, Matt Lucas, Simon Bird and more. In the case of Bird and Addison they’re hidden under a lot of hair (it is set in the 70s!), but you’ll laugh when you spot them.

To call it a comedy though, would be misleading. It’s a biopic – informative, tragic, funny, touching and ultimately bittersweet. It charts the rise of Raymond’s empire and the relationships with the women central to his life and success: wife (Friel), mistress (Egerton) and daughter (Poots).

Tender, tragic and charming
Coogan is quite brilliant in this role. In some ways Raymond can come across as quite unsympathetic; no time for his children, first abandoning his wife for his mistress, then mistress for whomever the next girl may be.

tamson egerton steve cooganCredit to Coogan, he manages to give Raymond a warmth and accessibility. He comes across as a guy trying to do his best, but doomed to make the same mistakes with all the women in his life, of which there are many. He also plays the role quite straight, allowing comic moments to reveal themselves accordingly – plus this gives room for more obvious comedic characters to shine.

Friel is outstanding as the fiery, yet vulnerable wife, coming in and out of his life at various moments. Egerton, too, plays her part well, as the sexy mistress who eventually runs out of patience with Raymond’s philandering ways.

For me, the biggest revelation was Poots as Raymond’s daughter, Debbie. Clearly a doting if misguided father, he indulges her every whim, including her desire to perform on stage headlining her own show. It isn’t a success and this kick-starts Debbie’s downward spiral, resulting in her death from heroin in 1992.

Poots gives Debbie an innocence and vulnerability that really gives dramatic heft to her fall from grace. Particularly when Raymond just isn’t there for her in the ways a father should be. When catching her doing cocaine for the first time, his fatherly advice is to ‘make sure it’s the best stuff and not rubbish from street dealers’.

Sex sells where love fails
This film shares a certain something with biopic Gia, based on the rise and fall of America’s first supermodel Gia Carangi, starring Angelina Jolie. It also had elements of Blow – a biopic starring Johnny Depp – based on the real life story of American cocaine smuggler George Jung.

Whilst both those were set in America, grand in scale and glamorous, The Look of Love is very much a British affair. Quirky, subtly amusing; finding comedy in tragedy and absurdity of the situation. There’s glamour, nudity and drugs, but it’s on more of an understated British level.

Ultimately, it’s an interesting little tale of a showman’s rise to fame through exploitation of the age-old motto ‘sex sells’. Yet what it does most cleverly – if you take away the glitz and glamour – is tell the tale of a man who surrounds himself with sex, yet fails to succeed at love. Either pushing it away with wives and girlfriends or – in the tragic case of his daughter – failing to live up to his responsibilities as a father.

Sometimes jumping between comedy and tragedy can seem jarring and uneven in tone, leaving the audience confused about what they are supposed to feel. Winterbottom does a great job, balancing these two elements to keep the film light when it needed to be, yet ensuring dramatic scenes still rang true.

So if you like true stories in a period setting, filled with tender, subtle drama and light, comic moments, go see it. But don’t expect an out-and-out comedy. It’s a more nuanced, reflective and complex tale – and that’s a good thing.

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