The Look Of Love

Paul Raymond’s relationship with his daughter Debbie is the successful heart of the film.

Released in cinemas 26th April 2013.

It’s a shame this uneven look at one of the UK’s most colourful characters comes from Michael Winterbottom. Not because the director has done a bad job bringing the sordid, sad tale of Soho porn baron Paul Raymond to life, but because of the expected casting of Winterbottom regular Steve Coogan.

Coogan’s unhelpful but obviously innate Alan Patridgisms give a comedic edge to the film that isn’t served well by an awkwardly strained script by Matt Greenhalgh (Nowhere Boy, Control). If one of the most gifted comedy actors this country’s ever produced is struggling with the scenarios (Raymond doing an impression of Marlon Brando is painfully edited), something’s horribly wrong.

Not strictly a biopic of Raymond (there’s one in the works), it skips his upbringing, skims his beginnings in theatre and move into nude dancing girls, and concentrates on the loves of his life, namely his wife Jean (Anna Friel), lover Fiona Richmond (Tamsin Egerton) and his only daughter Debbie (Imogen Poots). Annoyingly, even though we see Jean accepting his many one-night stands with his dancers and her hard work in Raymond’s business, we don’t get a grasp of their relationship, namely how and when this strong and determined woman emerged to juggle the respectable role of a 1950s housewife with a frank approach to sexuality. We don’t even discover how they meet and test the waters of their relationship.

More focus is given to Raymond’s intense love affair with Fiona, dancer and muse for his foray into men’s magazines. Winterbottom lingers on their relationship to the point of overkill, and there’s not a shred of genuine sensuality in their many unerotic and bawdy couplings. The Look of Love is fairly explicit for a mainstream release, especially when showing the seedy photoshoots following the more tasteful burlesque stagework, but nothing too extreme considering it came from the director of 9 Songs.

Much more successful is the heart of the film - Raymond’s relationship with his daughter Debbie - thanks to Poots’ wonderful performance, which ranges from precocious teen, hard-working starlet to vulnerable, coke-addled wife and mother. Paul and Debbie’s relationship was extraordinary, with the young woman present for all the debauched side of his life. However, this portrayal is hindered by Coogan’s limits as a dramatic actor, shown up more by the heartfelt and heartbreaking Poots, and a witty, feisty Friel.

Winterbottom’s attention to period detail seems half-hearted, despite attempts to recreate the mood of the different eras, but more unforgiving is the lack of sense of time and place, with both situations and characters. The portrayal of Raymond’s two sons - one born before he met Jean - is quite confusing and unstructured. Also frustrating is the casting of the UK’s comedy stars, who goof around when the likes of Poots, Friel and Egerton are giving fine dramatic performances. David Walliams, Stephen Fry and Simon Bird distract, but Chris Addison shines as editor Tony Power, and James Lance makes for a nice Patridge reunion as Carl Snitcher.

Credit must be given for the decision to portray Raymond’s uglier side, not sugarcoating his betrayals and highlighting the worrying way he spoke to Debbie, and for not entirely glamorising the ultimate seediness of the Soho scene. For all its faults - the uneven tone, Coogan’s superficial, lightweight performance - The Look of Love has a lingering pang of emotion thanks to Poots.

Rating: 6/10