I have walked the streets of Soho for over twenty years. Of course I'm interested in a film about its King.
Soho is a small block in the heart of the West End, that is now home to theatres, posh eateries and bars. Once, it had a more interesting reputation–it was the place to go for strip clubs, adult cinemas and all manner of sleaze, corruption and vice. The vast majority of it was owned by impresario and pornographer Paul Raymond, at one point the richest man in England. The Look Of Love, directed by Michael Winterbottom from a script by Matt Greenhalgh, purports to tell his story.
Functionally, it's a standard biopic with a few stylistic whizbangs. We track Raymond's career from 1950's nudie shows, through to his 1970's heyday as a publishing magnate, before the inevitable fall and bittersweet coda. Winterbottom throws every trick in the book at us to keep things interesting, mimicking different film stocks, split screens, wacky wipes, magazine-style overlays. And nudity, of course. Lots and lots of nudity. The Look Of Love is rated as an 18, which makes sense given the BBFC's fear of anything remotely sexy. Nevertheless, it's all reasonably tasteful, and you even get to see Steve Coogan's bum, if that's your thing.
The trouble is, because it's at heart a standard biopic, it follows all the standard biopic rules. A rush through the early days, before we get to the meat of the tale. We're in and out of the sixties in a minute flat. The focus is squarely on the seventies, upping the groovy quotient, making the most of the hair and costumes. As our point of view narrows, we're drawn into the tale of Raymond and the three women in his life; his wife Jean, his daughter Debbie and his long-term girlfriend, the model Fiona Richmond.
And that's where I started to lose interest. The film starts to close in on itself, playing out in the tight bounds of Soho's narrow streets, in the ornate but sterile interiors of Raymond's houses and clubs. It becomes the story of the misfortunes of very rich people. There are tears and drugs and histrionics and tragedy, but none of it feels particularly deep or meaningful. Worse, it has an air of sheaudenfreude or hubris. We're here in the dark to enjoy the suffering of these people. I'm bothered a little by this, and wonder at the agenda at play.
Raymond was the richest man in Britain towards the end of his life, and he made his fortune through property. But no-one would be interested in a film about a wealthy property magnate and his difficult relationship with his daughter. It has to be about his life as a nude-show entrepreneur and publisher of softcore porn. The tragic end can somehow then feel appropriate–maybe even deserved. Casting Steve Coogan as Raymond puts another edge on the blade. That decision means that he can be portrayed as laughable, slightly pathetic, a puffed-up clown whose rise is balanced by an inevitable crash back to earth. This may not have been the intention, but the numerous Winterbottom/Coogan collaborations up to now have always locked onto a charismatic but deluded main character whose luck with women and success is tempered by the impression that he's something of a fool.
Coogan apart, who plays Coogan in a variety of funny wigs in moustaches, the performances are uniformally excellent, with a stand-out part for Imogen Poots as poor, doomed Debbie, falling to bits before our eyes. The Look Of Love is by no means a bad film. It's too well crafted for that. But I wanted to see a little bit more of Soho back in the day, and get a little more of the sleazy thrill of the place I remember when I first started working here. Maybe that's my fault for expecting more than a biopic of the King of Soho. The end result is far less free-wheeling and open than the trailers would lead you to expect. It's hermetic, almost airless, and really quite gloomy. Is this a by-product of the film's low budget, or perhaps another judgement on Raymond? He may have been rich and famous, but behold, here is a portrait of a man trapped in a quarter-mile of central London, fading quietly into a drug-fuelled doldrum. The sad pornographer, facing the inevitable consequence of his sleazy trade.
Again, am I reading too much into this? Am I seeing a quesy moral judgement at the heart of this film that's explicitly at odds with its supposed open-minded approach to Soho in the seventies? Most biopics have this character arc, after all. The major fall, the minor lift. Maybe all biopics contain a sickly glee at portraying the misfortunes of the rich and famous as part of their modus operandi. To me, though, The Look Of Love makes more of this than usual. It ties Raymond's career implicitly into his daughter's sad life and early death. Would she have been like this if Daddy didn't run nude theatre in the heart of the sleaziest neighbourhood in London?
Ultimately, The Look Of Love is a much more moralistic, far less open-minded film than I'd hoped for, that paints Raymond as a pathetic clown with identity issues. In the end, by attempting to paint him with the sleaze brush, it can't avoid splattering itself. That's a shame. There's a great history in these streets, and a biopic of Raymond would have been a great opportunity to frame a story with a much broader reach. Instead, we end up with the same old voyeuristic sniggering, with an agenda very much at odds with the glossy, air-brushed surface. You could argue that's a lot like Soho. I don't think that I could convince you otherwise, and The Look Of Love certainly doesn't bother. A wasted opportunity.