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PARK CITY – Before Soho became the gay global village and media darling playground it is today, the Central London district was better known as a kind of fish-and-chips Vegas, its gateway marked by the landmark Raymond Revuebar sign that promised the world’s best in erotic entertainment.
The impresario behind a lucrative empire of strip clubs, soft porn magazines and real estate, Paul Raymond is brought to life with droll humor by Steve Coogan in The Look of Love. But despite the inherent pathos in this King Midas tale, Michael Winterbottom’s uneven biopic lacks heart.
The film kicks off on a promising note with a fun title sequence that has colorful sex-kitten cutouts gliding by to a foot-tapping mambo tune. “My name is Paul Raymond,” says Coogan direct-to-camera in the role. “Welcome to my world of erotica.” The grip of nostalgia for a less uptight age is instantaneous.
However, Winterbottom and screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh have trouble establishing a functional framing device. On one hand, there’s the “King of Soho,” chumming up to an interviewer while conducting a guided tour of his saucy underground domain. On the other, there’s the aged Raymond, grieving for his daughter Debbie (Imogen Poots). He watches a video recording of a TV profile, its voiceover narration helping to provide a recap of his early career. But this image of an entrepreneur with a magic touch, who lost everyone he ever loved, never comes satisfyingly into focus. And the film’s playful and sorrowful sides are not fully reconciled, remaining split identities.
Much of it is frisky and entertaining, however, especially in the pioneering years, blossoming from black and white into vibrant color. A self-invented man from humble roots in Liverpool, Raymond circumvented British laws concerning public displays of nudity. His initial experiments included the grandly named Cirque Nu de Paris, featuring his wife Jean (Anna Friel) topless in a lion-tamer act. But his money-spinning breakthrough came with the opening in 1958 of the members-only Revuebar, showcasing elaborately themed nude spectacles.
The cramped backstage corridors and dressing rooms — clouded with cigarette smoke and draped with nubile women in G-strings and feathers — are wonderfully re-created by production designer Jacqueline Abrahams and costumer Stephanie Collie.
As the swinging ‘60s get under way and Paul finds himself competing with more raunchy mainstream entertainment, he ventures into legitimate theater. His production of a famously meritless comedy called Pyjama Tops proudly emblazoned the pull quote “Arbitrary displays of naked flesh!” across its ads. While casting that show, he meets a self-possessed vicar’s daughter who goes by the name Amber (Tamsin Egerton). She becomes his lover and prompts the end of his marriage to Jean.
Following an overture from Tony Power (Chris Addison), editor of Men Only magazine, Paul dives into publishing, turning the flagging title into a success. Giving her the more refined name of Fiona Richmond, he puts Amber on the masthead to write a titillating column, in which she “test-drives” the men of Continental Europe.
But like Jean before her, Fiona grows tired of sharing Paul with an endless parade of sex partners — often two or three at a time — who pass through the king-size bed of their lavish penthouse apartment.
Fiona’s exit from the main action leaves us with Debbie, who has been expelled from boarding school and wants to be a performer. But this section of the movie becomes a drag, partly because the script fails to provide a concrete grounding for the father-daughter relationship.
Paul gets behind Debbie’s initial bid to be a singer, featuring her as the fully clothed star of an ambitious revue called “Royalty Follies.” In typically self-aggrandizing style, he boasts that it’s the most expensive production ever mounted in the country. But the show is a dud. The film gets bogged down in biographical detail as Debbie ventures without much distinction into producing while picking up an escalating cocaine habit from Tony.
The script’s biggest failing is not creating a full-bodied character out of Debbie. “All she ever wanted was to impress you,” says Jean to Paul at their daughter’s funeral. But the statement doesn’t resonate, because we’ve seen no evidence of it from a girl who comes across merely as a whiny no-talent.
Sporting the side-swept mane that was Raymond’s signature look from the 1960s until his death in 2008, Coogan plays him as an avuncular if self-absorbed figure with a disarming predilection for schoolboy innuendo. Cruising around London in his Rolls-Royce with its PRII vanity plates, he conveys the innate showmanship of the man and his disdain for the hypocrisies of starchy postwar Britain. But the character’s increasing sense of solitude is less persuasive. Of the figures in his orbit, only Egerton’s ineffably poised Fiona leaves a lasting impression.
Among famous faces that turn up briefly, Stephen Fry appears as a bewigged barrister, and Little Britain duo David Walliams and Matt Lucas drop in, respectively, as a libidinous cleric and as Divine in a London run of the B-movie stage spoof Women Behind Bars.
Loaded with music — albeit some surprisingly obvious choices from the director who made 24 Hour Party People — the film is absorbing on a scene-by-scene basis. But it connects the dots of Raymond’s life in a perfunctory way, without locating a fluid through-line or gaining emotional access to its elusive subject.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Cast: Steve Coogan, Anna Friel, Imogen Poots, Tamsin Egerton, Chris Addison, James Lance, Matthew Beard, Liam Boyle, Simon Bird, Matt Lucas, David Walliams, Stephen Fry, Dara O’Briain, Miles Jupp, Shirley Henderson, Kieran O’Brien, Peter Wight
Production companies: Revolution Films, in association with Baby Cow Films
Director: Michael Winterbottom
Screenwriter: Matt Greenhalgh
Producer: Melissa Parmenter
Executive producers: Andrew Eaton, Jenny Borgars, Katherine Butler, Norman Merry, Danny Perkins, Piers Wenger
Director of photography: Hubert Taczanowski
Production designer: Jacqueline Abrahams
Music: Antony Genn, Martin Slattery
Costume designer: Stephanie Collie
Editor: Mags Arnold
No rating, 105 minutes.
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