“Normal life is for normal people” – says Paul Raymond in a particularly painful moment in The Look of Love, the new film from Michael Winterbottom, charting the career of one of the richest British men of the 20th Century. It is perhaps the oldest rule in the book that fame and power can easily corrupt and destroy. One rung down from that is the fact that every good parent wants the best for their children; it’s just that what people consider to be the best differs widely and is often misguided.
I doubt there will be many people watching The Look of Love who will sit down not knowing Raymond’s story, at least in part. This is the man who got rich essentially by recognising the basic fact that men, whether you like it or not, have wiring directly connecting their eyes to their genitals. When the film starts, Raymond is married and has two children (that he knows about at least) – a boy and a girl. His daughter Debbie is the apple of his eye and Raymond, as many fathers would in his position, spoils her and brings her up to follow in his footsteps as head of his empire after he is gone.
Opinions differ greatly on the morality of Raymond’s career and indeed its very nature. In this film we see Raymond insisting, numerous times, that his work is not pornographic or degrading to women in any way. Many, I’m sure, would disagree. That is largely beside the point and isn’t really what the story is about. Winterbottom does an excellent job of deliberately not taking sides, standing back and letting the humour and controversy of what he did (a lot of which seems really quite tame to contemporary audiences) rise to the surface without bias.
The Look of Love, at its heart, is a deeply sad film. There is much humour and dry wit to be found, and the nudity – true to the spirit of Raymond’s work while he was alive – is often teasing and playful. Yet the characters we are presented with (all deeply flawed) find themselves trapped in a world that feeds insatiably on them, even if they aren’t aware of it. They move sadly in closed circles of loneliness and emotional unfulfillment, and when they try to reach out, their own weakness, ignorance and selfishness only consumes them further. Those smart enough such as Fiona Richmond, the famous journalist/model for Men Only (one of Raymond’s publications), gets out while she can; wounded but strong enough to survive. Many of the others aren’t so lucky.
One of the things that often lets cinematic biopics down is that, confronted with human lives so rich and full of incident, filmmakers don’t know how to condense it into a film which conveys both the range and depth of their subjects’ lives. Winterbottom has had a more than decent shot at it and the result in many respects is very impressive. However, at one hour and forty-five minutes, the film is just too short and a lot of depth is sacrificed as a result. For much of its running time, it feels far too much like a whistle-stop tour of events rather than a probing and insightful re-telling of them. The film’s unbiased stance on some of its subject matter may be admirable but at the same time I feel it only ever superficially delves into the murkiness of the world it depicts. Not only this but major events in these characters’ lives are sometimes skipped over with irritating speed, such as Debbie’s ordeal with breast cancer which is revealed and dealt with in barely over a minute’s screen time.
That said, the film is redeemed almost exclusively by stunning performances all round. Steve Coogan gives perhaps the performance of his career as Raymond but the stars of the show truly are the leading actresses – Anna Friel as Raymond’s wife, Tamsin Egerton as Fiona and Imogen Poots (a rising star) as Debbie are all outstanding, turning in compelling and sympathetic performances. The film also boasts much stylish cinematography, a great soundtrack and a wealth of delightful cameos, ranging from Stephen Fry and David Walliams to Dara O’Briain and Matt Lucas. Far more convincing than Winterbottom’s last work, Trishna which was based on the Thomas Hardy novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles, The Look of Love is a highly entertaining and ultimately very moving film. I await Winterbottom’s next project with interest.
Review by LiveWire Film Critic, James Martin (April ’13)