Another day, another biopic. This example of the genre features a rich slice of the life of the late Paul Raymond, multimillionaire, porn king, club owner, property tycoon and serial philanderer, played here by a bewigged Steve Coogan. Indeed, much is made of Raymond being the man who owned Soho, or a huge proportion of the freeholds at least, and that the women attracted to Raymond are attracted by his physical looks but by the whiff of power, money and glamour he carried about with him.
But before we begin, here is the key question: why call a film about a man who established his empire on soft-core smut The Look of Love, named after an atmospheric Bacharach/David song originally sung by Dusty Springfield?
The use of the title and song is surely ironic, but also indicative that the subject might have made a vast pot of cash from exploiting sex and self-publicity, but screwed up every attempt with love, wrecked a marriage and numerous relationships through sleeping with his employees, and ultimately lost his beloved daughter, Debbie , designated inheritor of his business empire, to an overdose in 1992, incorrectly quoted in the film as saying that since she was a grown woman she was therefore fully capable of looking after herself. Equally, his disinheritance of a son by a previous relationship demonstrates a heart of ice.
Next question is whether the film challenges audiences by becoming that upon which it moralises. I refer to the inclusion of “tasteful nudity” at regular intervals, since, by definition, you could make do a movie about Raymond without frequent displays of perky bosoms, and occasional flashes of well-trimmed pubes, in-keeping with its much prized 18 certificate. A film designed for titilation maybe, and if so then in an ironic way?
Would anyone watch TLOL and be turned on? Dubious, but then the world of porn has moved on since Raymond’s heyday, such that the world he created almost seems naive, though not innocent, in its depiction of sexuality. Compare and contrast with the family atmosphere juxtaposed with violence, drugs and death in Boogie Nights. “Is this show porn” and “does your show exploit women?” Raymond is asked in a press conference; to both questions he answers “no” – though the evidence portrayed in the film suggests both to be false claims at many levels.
There is more than a hint of sleazy seedy Soho about the whole shebang, deliberately so. Maybe friends of Raymond might think this at least in part more a character assassination than a hagiography? All questions for which director Michael Winterbottom will surely have rehearsed answers for his press conferences and interviews. His reading appears to be that Raymond ultimately courted respectability, but never quite achieved it, illustrated by frequent flashbacks and -forwards to demonstrate the contrast between the made man and the aspirational showman, must as La Vie En Rose applies apparently random time shifts for this purpose.
Maybe the issue is a void at the heart of the movie. Compared to his performance in Philomena, Coogan doesn’t really convince me in TLOL. He seems too shallow, lacking the charisma and drive of the real Raymond, a man who could certainly spot and exploit an opportunity and demonstrated amply his ability to be in the right place at the right time. He comes over as a wisecracking showman, for sure, but I get no sense of his underbelly, the real grief of the man. His tears on seeing his dead daughter (underplayed well by Imogen Poots) seem like crocodile tears at the one moment when you expect him to dissolve.
Maybe Coogan’s Raymond is a meticulously researched analysis of the man’s demeanour, but I don’t think it reaches the heart and soul. Maybe it stops with the outer layers of a deceptively complex personality without embracing the inner melancholy? Either way, I don’t think you quite nailed it, Steve, old chum.
Ironically, the cast seems on the whole to be a fine family of English actors, all having a great time and therefore worthy of the Boogie Nights approach to the sex industry. Even the ubiquitous Stephen Fry gets a look-in as a barrister, and let’s face it – no British movie worthy of note would be complete without a Fry cameo!
So in conclusion: a jolly jape and a lot of slinky fun with a bevy of bare-breasted beauties, but perhaps not the major revelations about Paul Raymond you would hope to make. Was he really emotionally a fur-coat-but-no-knickers sort of bloke, or was his real relationship with wads of cash? Did he really care about those around him or was he on a one-dimensional ego-trip? I suspect we may never really know.
However, Mr Winterbottom leaves us with Poots, who, like Debbie Raymond, has an acceptable but not exceptional voice, singing The Look Of Love at the Raymond Revuebar while an audience including her father watches on. Raymond sings along silently, but ultimately is deceived – by love or by himself I will leave you to decide.