Mike Sutton reviews the Studiocanal Blu-Ray of this impressive biopic of Paul Raymond from Steve Coogan and Michael Winterbottom.
The collaboration between Michael Winterbottom and Steve Coogan has produced two absolute masterpieces in the form of The Trip and 24 Hour Party People and one near-classic in A Cock and Bull Story. If The Look of Love isn’t quite in the same league it’s still a funny, impressive, and intelligent film which manages the difficult task of making the property dealing porn impresario Geoffrey Quinn, better known as Paul Raymond, not only suitably exotic and comic but also human and genuinely touching.
Paul Raymond’s life was colourful in the extreme, ultimately rather tragic and perhaps partly a moral tale in the pitfalls of success. He began to make money in the black market during the war and subsequently moved into show business, first as an unsuccessful mind-reader in Clacton and then as the producer of shows featuring nude models. By 1958 he had opened the Raymond Revuebar in Soho and survived various lawsuits, including one which involved a magistrate’s objection to a nude performer swallowing a snake. He later moved into publishing with the magazines Men Only and Club International and staged a number of successful West End plays including the likes of Pyjama Tops and Let’s Get Laid. But most of his money was made in property and when he died, his estate was valued at over half a billion pounds. His private life was more turbulent, His marriage to his second wife Jean was broken up by an affair with a model Julia Harrison who changed her name to Fiona Richmond and became one of the best known adult models of the 1970s. He was estranged from his son Howard, had an illegitimate child, and doted on his daughter Debbie. But Debbie was troubled; at first a singer and subsequently her father’s business partner, she became addicted to cocaine and eventually killed herself. After her death, Raymond retired to his Piccadilly penthouse and was barely seen again in public.
I first became familiar with Paul Raymond through an illicit teenage rental of his film Paul Raymond’s Erotica. One of the most tedious softcore porn films ever made, this features the French actress Brigitte Lahaie screwing her way through London – one decidedly unerotic encounter takes place in Smithfield Meat Market – and eventually meeting the man himself. He’s not looking at his best to be honest and it cemented him in my memory as a somewhat sleazy old man who couldn’t sit in a chair without looking shifty. Steve Coogan captures this quite brilliantly but he does something else. He shows us the human being underneath the public image, a man who had wit and flair and was utterly devoted to his daughter, even at the same time as he was unable to fully commit to anyone else in his life. In some ways, Coogan has been playing the public Raymond for years in the persona of Portuguese singing sensation Tony Ferrino – “Every man’s fantasy! Horses with tits!” – but the subtlety of his portrayal here is surprising. The funny lines come across like a dream, as you’d expect, but when he’s heartbroken and lost after the death of Debbie, he is remarkably affecting and oddly vulnerable.
The strength of the film lies in how well it evokes Raymond’s glamorous lifestyle without necessarily buying into it and it treats the sad story of Debbie Raymond with dignity and sincerity. Imogen Poots’s performance is exceptional, getting beyond the spoiled daughter stereotype and into a portrait of a woman who was showered with material wealth and smothered with love but never quite taken seriously. The other two women in Raymond’s life get a good crack of the whip too – Anna Friel is tough and believable as Jean and Tamsin Egerton is quite uncanny as Fiona Richmond, the only woman with whom Raymond ever seemed to genuinely have fun but who yearned for a normal life.
One of the great strengths of 24 Hour Party People was the ensemble cast and it’s a virtue here as well. Half of the British comic acting establishment turn out and do themselves proud, whether it’s Mark Williams radiating sleaziness as a director or Stephen Fry raising his eyebrows as a sarcastic QC. In larger roles, Chris Addison, bewigged and bearded, is suitably unappealing as the magazine editor Tony Powers, Simon Bird is surprisingly convincing as Debbie’s husband Jonathan Hodge – best known for writing the Shake and Vac jingle – and David Walliams is a treat as the Soho vicar Edwyn Young, a character who deserves a biography to himself. There’s also a terrific scene of social embarrassment when Raymond’s illegitimate son Derry comes round for a drink which is beautifully played by Coogan and Liam Boyle.
The period recreation throughout is great, quite a feat considering how difficult it is to shoot on location in the middle of London. The details are the key here, be it the appalling wallpaper and sofa combinations or the mirrored ceilings. Surprisingly, for the director of 9 Songs, the sex is fairly discreet and usually incidental with an orgy, for example, filmed in an impressionistic style. Winterbottom’s biggest success is with the intimate sequences between Raymond and his women. He doesn’t do quite so well with the bigger set-pieces such as the famous Lady Godiva in Soho stunt or the rather flat recreations of the stage plays. It doesn’t seem like a milieu which Winterbottom and writer Matt Greenhalgh know all that well, and this remove means that we don’t feel immersed in a subculture as we did in the film about Tony Wilson.
On the whole, however, The Look of Love works very well in giving us a multi-layered portrait of Paul Raymond. It should encourage anyone interested to read the book Member’s Only by Paul Willetts which goes into a lot more detail but doesn’t particularly contradict anything in the film. It offers further confirmation of what that recent triumph The Trip already demonstrated, that Coogan is capable of much more than Alan Partridge and deserves to be considered as a serious dramatic actor. And where else would you get to see Matt Lucas play Divine?
Studiocanal’s Blu-Ray of The Look of Love offers an excellent presentation of the film and an interesting, if not entirely satisfactory, collection of extras.
The film, shot on digital, is presented at its original aspect ratio of 2.40:1. It’s a superb representation of the original with a blemish-free picture that looks as good as it did in cinemas. One of the visual highpoints of the film, once it moves from the early black and white stages, is the use of vivid colour and this is particularly notable here with the colours popping off the screen. Blacks are deep and true and fleshtones look natural, particularly important in a film with so much naked skin. There doesn’t seem to be any notable use of DNR, and the contrast is impeccable. There are two soundtrack options. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is the best with impressive dynamic range and suitably buoyant music but the 2.0 track is also a model of clarity.
The extras are certainly valuable but the lack of a making-of or a commentary is keenly felt since the need for context is only partially addressed by a frustratingly incomplete Paul Raymond timeline. However, there is some interest in what we do get. Along with the original trailer – which somewhat misrepresents the film as a wild comedy – we get a collection of interviews and numerous deleted scenes. The interviews vary from the interesting – Michael Winterbottom and Steve Coogan – to the dispensable – David Walliams. What’s slightly irksome is the format, which has them all too obviously answering questions which we don’t hear. The 16 minutes of deleted scenes are all worth a look but there’s nothing startling here. A discussion about Razzle between Coogan and James Lance is a treat though – “Shelley from Doncaster, legs akimbo, on a draylon sofa in a terrace house in Ancoats” – and there’s a lovely scene with Edwyn Young and a television interviewer.
Alongside optional subtitles for the main feature, there is also an audio description track.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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