The Look of Love marks Steve Coogan’s fourth collaboration with Michael Winterbottom and it’s an ideal companion piece to their 24 Hour Party People (2002), offering another decades-spanning look at a seminal, if lesser-known, British cultural figure. It’s a complex character study that offers some of Coogan’s most interesting work and another testament to Winterbottom’s knack for period naturalism.
Here, Coogan plays Paul Raymond, who was dubbed the King of Soho for his property purchases, proprietorship of the U.K.’s first strip joint and publication of erotica magazines including Men Only and Escort. The film traces Raymond’s three decades or so as his nation’s Hugh Hefner, wheeling, dealing to amass his empire.
The movie is a character study before it’s anything else, but Raymond’s story plays out against a stylized trip through some distinct periods in British history. The picture seamlessly transitions from moody black-and-white scenes of Raymond’s underground revue through the kaleidoscopic, colorful ’60s and the drug-fused last gasp of the disco era. Raymond’s posh Wimbledon home, with all the hallmarks of proper upper class existence, contrasts with the eroticized grit of the clubs he frequented. TV news feature recreations, and dialogue performed with an ear for authentic rhythms, plant the film squarely within Winterbottom’s preferred verite terrain.
Of course, Raymond is kept front and center throughout, with Coogan devoting every bit of his particular blend of suave cool and sliminess to bring the man alive. In equal measure, the actor draws on the strengths that made his character successful and weaknesses that spurred his spiral into reclusiveness at the end of his life.
He’s a fervent competitor, one of those ferocious alpha males who must win at all costs, even if doing so means alienating everyone around him. The egotism knows no bounds: Early on, a news crew visits him at that Wimbledon estate and observes as he celebrates his adolescent son’s failure to hit his cricket pitches.
The film begins with Raymond aspiring to a pretense of respectability, with the picturesque family and home and push toward legitimate business. Throughout, there’s an insistence that the sexy entertainment remain softcore and harmless; the character chafes at allegations of pornography and blasphemy. Coogan utilizes the tools he developed as an accomplished voiceover actor earlier in his career to convincingly impart these attempts at proper gentlemanly conduct. Far removed from his characteristic droll absurdist types, Coogan displays the deep voice and polished demeanor required to pull this off.
But as the era of sexual enlightenment dawns and the temptations compound, Coogan’s Raymond starts to crumble, while the actor imbues his work with an increasing sense of emptiness masked by a frantic quest for instant gratification. Paul’s family falls apart when he leaves his wife for the alluring Fiona Richmond (Tamsin Egerton) and the man descends into a sad state, bringing an endless stream of women into his penthouse, showing them the stars above his bed in a desperate bid to impress.
Drugs become a major factor in Paul’s downfall, but the nadir arrives when his beloved daughter Debbie (Imogen Poots) is expelled from school for marijuana possession. Winterbottom and screenwriter Mike Greenhalgh identify the Paul-Debbie relationship as the central facet of the main character’s moral degeneration, with the father’s warped love directly spurring the daughter’s increasingly sad story.
This is a bond that transitions from innocent to unsettling as Paul introduces Debbie into his libertine world. The movie captures the characters’ closeness in unrelenting detail: Paul encourages Debbie to try the “right” kinds of cocaine, and he’s in the delivery room when Debbie gives birth. Cross-cutting between her performance at the fore of a Raymond revue and dad’s enraptured response enhances the uncomfortable feeling.
But the relationship makes sense. Paul loves his daughter and shows it in the only way this broken man understands: indoctrinating her into his soulless world. He’s the consummate showman, surrounded by supporting characters in the “play” of his life. Debbie is his favorite star, his leading lady. It’s a toxic combination, a warped father-daughter story, and it ends in the only way such a tale can: tragically.
The Upside: A great Steve Coogan performance and Michael Winterbottom valuing character development above period aesthetics.
The Downside: Coogan makes you understand Paul Raymond and feel empathy for him, but the character is repulsive and it’s hard to spend 101 minutes with him.
On the Side: Coogan and Winterbottom’s previous collaborations: 24 Hour Party People, Tristam Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, The Trip.