Bradford has often opened with a new British film and British cinema has been an important element of the festival. On the face of it The Look of Love looks like a good choice. Michael Winterbottom is a celebrated if controversial director, Steve Coogan has done some of his best work with Michael and the subject matter is promising. . . . On the other hand, biopics are notoriously difficult to get right. Writer Matt Greenhalgh scripted one of the best with Control and I’ve admired Michael Winterbottom’s work since I first saw Welcome to Sarajevo on a big screen in 1997. After Wonderland in 1999 I was convinced that he was the most exciting UK director around. Since then I’ve liked nearly everything he’s done and I’ve been dismayed by the failure of most of his best films to get the recognition they deserve in terms of big audiences. I think Winterbottom’s problem has been to find a new writing partner after his successful collaborations with Frank Cottrell-Boyce and his irregular link-ups with Laurence Coriat. Before the screening my main concern was how the notorious workaholic guerilla filmmaker with thirty-odd films to his name would get on with a scriptwriter who had previously worked with first-time feature directors. You can’t really get a better combination of Lancashire names than Greenhalgh-Winterbottom, so I’m sure that they got on at a personal level, but for me the film didn’t work.
Let’s take the positives first. The audience clapped at the end and several people said how much they liked it. The performances in the film were all good and the soundtrack must have cost a few bob with some nice tunes from the 1960s-1980s. After that I start to struggle. The Look of Love tells the story of Paul Raymond, the Liverpool-born ‘failed entertainer’ who became a very successful impresario in the demi-world of first nude shows in the 1950s then strip clubs and his Revuebar in Soho and eventually a softporn publishing empire. His stroke of genius (sorry, there is a pun there which was not intentional, but that’s how the ‘nudge, wink’ world works) was to put his profits into property in the West End. By the late 1990s he was one of the richest men in the UK. But money can’t buy you love – even if you do know the Beatles. Raymond’s family life was a mess, particularly in relation to his daughter who would do anything to please her father. He was seemingly a father who could not really understand the damage that he did.
In the Q & A that followed, Matt Greenhalgh answered a question about what was not in the film (e.g. Raymond’s possible dealings with criminals etc.) by saying that there were too many stories. He also said that he hadn’t done deep research in Soho. Instead, it seems that he latched onto the story of Debbie, the daughter (played by Imogen Poots). He also implied that he didn’t get to tell that story fully, because the film was really the idea of Steve Coogan who wanted to play Raymond. Here is possibly the major problem with the film. Steve Coogan, whose performances in The Trip and 24 Hour Party People I admire, is miscast as Raymond, or rather he can’t or won’t, play Raymond as a ‘character’ in this fiction. He remains Coogan, on a couple of occasions addressing the camera to say “My name is Paul Raymond”, winking at the camera on another occasion and then doing Coogan impressions of Sean Connery later Marlon Brando.
The film wants to tell the story from the 1950s to the 1990s. Raymond was born in 1925 so he was in his late 60s by the end of the film. Coogan does actually look a little like Raymond in his 60s, but he also always looks like Coogan. He’s not really helped by the film’s production design. The 1950s sequences use black and white but from then on, Soho looks more or less the same over the next forty years. You have to guess from the clothes which decade is which. For someone who was once the most audacious director around for devising a unique aesthetic approach, Winterbottom seems to have abandoned the task this time. It’s probably not helped by the absence of Marcel Zyskind whose camerawork has been the basis of that aesthetic since he acted as operator for Robbie Muller on 24 Hour Party People in 2002. (He shot two episodes of the third series of The Killing in his native Denmark in 2012 instead.)
At the end of the Q&A we got the inevitable (and justifiable) question about the film’s objectification of women. Of course, a film about a man who runs strip clubs and a soft porn publishing house has to show something, but the question (from a well-known film studies professor) was why was the film so complicit, so chummy in its representations of Raymond – and why were there no male genitalia to complement the numerous full frontals of dozens of actresses? It’s a fair point, but my feeling is that the film simply didn’t offer anything ‘strong’ to react against. Raymond wasn’t a hypocrite. He didn’t peddle Page 3 or attack women like the Daily Mail does now. He published ‘top shelf’ magazines and ran clubs that made money from the gullibility of men seeking excitement. The acres of flesh seemed to me just dull, but that was what much of that softporn world in the UK was like in the 1970s and 1980s. British representations of sex were at one time mostly comical. If they were sexy it was because of an element of realism – the ‘Readers’ Wives’ aesthetic if you like. It’s ironic that in one scene it’s just possible to glimpse a poster of Joe Losey’s The Servant (a poster for Billy Liar appears in another scene). There is much more eroticism in one look from Dirk Bogarde or a wriggle by Sarah Miles than in the whole of The Look of Love. Having said that, at least the women in Winterbottom’s film looked ‘real’ and not sculpted and plucked like Christmas turkeys. Anna Friel and Tamsin Egerton as Raymond’s wife Jean and his girlfriend Fiona Richmond make the most of what they are offered, but they deserved more. There is a story in here, probably more than one, but they need to be told in such a way to bring out not just the personal relationships but also something about the changes in British social life over the period. If it had more bite the film would be more entertaining and might also generate some debate.