The Look of Love is the biopic of a Northern Lad done good, played by Steve Coogan more or less through the filter of Alan Partridge donning a few different wigs to play a media darling spanning decades of a life involving nightclubs, a tragic death, someone called Debbie, drugs, excess, infidelity and a pretty decent soundtrack. It is impossible not to link Michael Winterbottom’s biopic of nightclub owner and erotic magazine magnate Paul Raymond back to 24 Hour Party People, his film from a decade earlier starring Coogan as Tony Wilson as played by Alan Partridge.
As with 24 Hour Party People the film has been adapted from a book, in this case Paul Willets’ biography of Raymond, Members Only, with the screenplay provided by Matt Greenhalgh, who scripted the Joy Division biopic Control (2007) as well as Nowhere Boy (2009). The story focuses on the rise of Raymond’s empire, told as a flashback after the opening scenes of him driving through Soho in a flash car, telling his granddaughter which buildings he owns (nearly all) following the shock death of the girl’s mother and Raymond’s daughter, Debbie.
The film’s main thrust is the rise of Raymond’s revue club and magazine business alongside his main relationships, those of his marriage and divorce, with his long-term lovers and the relationship with his daughter and his attempt to groom her to run the magazines. The film has strong performances from Anna Friel as Raymond’s wife and Imogen Poots as his daughter, as well as from Chris Addison as Tony Power, Raymond’s magazine partner, Tasmin Egerton as his lover and stylised star porn reporter Amber/ Fiona Richmond, and a good turn from James Lance as his legal advisor Carl Snitcher. Scattered throughout the film are numerous cameo appearances from the current crop of recognisable British television comedians, but the film is basically a Steve Coogan vehicle and its strengths and limitations are based around his dominating presence.
Winterbottom has directed Coogan a few times now and there is an obvious air of comfort in the film. Everything is well put together and the editing is slick but, as often is the case, the presence of Coogan becomes overbearing. He has become so synonymous with Alan Partridge that, no matter how compelling his performance may be, the depictions of real life characters are always going to feel lacking in any depth and carry an illusion of reality. This is not a huge criticism as the film is sympathetic in its portrayal and, although comedy is never far from the heart of everything, there is a degree of sadness in the humour (which is there in Partridge and the portrayal of Tony Wilson, too). If there is a fault in Coogan’s portrayal it lies with the fact that it becomes difficult to tell if the delivery of the anecdotes and the impersonations are true to the character portrayed or just an excuse to squeeze out elements that have worked in previous collaborations such as The Trip or A Cock and Bull Story. As a result it is often difficult as a viewer to suspend disbelief enough to feel that you are watching a story about a real life.
There is much to admire in the amount of good work that Michael Winterbottom manages to release. The standard of his filmmaking is nearly always excellent. In many ways The Look of Love is more successful than some of his more interesting films. It seems to touch all the right buttons and the result is a very tasteful (especially given the sleazy nature of Paul Raymond’s oeuvre) and, at times, very amusing tragicomedy. I can’t help feeling that Winterbottom is a ‘one for them / one for you’ director and although he will have enjoyed making this film and put a lot of effort into it, the next film may be more challenging for such a diverse director.
There are, of course, a forthcoming Alan Partridge film and another Paul Raymond film, The King of Soho, in the pipeline. For the time being it is hard not to think of The Look of Love as being something of a taster for the two of them.