First Night review: The Look of Love gives us porn king Paul Raymond as Citizen Kane – so where’s the dirt?

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Steve Coogan is a lively lead, but Paul Raymond is just too superficial (and too sleazy) to carry a glitzy biopic

Michael Winterbottom’s biopic of the porn and property magnate Paul Raymond would like to have us believe that Raymond (who was one of Britain’s richest men) was Soho’s answer to Citizen Kane. The film, scripted by Matt Greenhalgh, even has an elaborate flashback-based screenplay similar to the one in Kane. Its problem is that Raymond is too sleazy, comic and superficial a character to take on any kind of tragic grandeur.

In spite of a very lively performance from Steve Coogan as the porn king of Soho, this is a film lacking emotional depth. You enjoy its recreation of 1970s Soho, which is vivid without lapsing into kitsch. Winterbottom brings the same anarchic energy to The Look Of Love which made 24 Hour Party People, his film about Manchester pop svengali Tony Wilson, so invigorating. There are plenty of colourful cameos from familiar faces (Stephen Fry as a judge, David Walliams as a venal priest, etc). The film is shot in bright, primary colours. The world of Soho clip joints and private members’ clubs is depicted in cheery, carnivalesque fashion. (Any squalor or exploitation is glossed over.)

Vicar’s daughter turned flame-haired porn star Fiona Richmond, played with great gusto by Tamsin Egerton, epitomises the very British approach to adult entertainment. Everyone here wants to enjoy themselves and make money in the process. Surprisingly, the filmmakers skim over Raymond’s childhood and background. We hear in passing how he changed his name (he was born Geoffrey Quinn) and he is always keen to remind us that he arrived in London as “a lad from Liverpool with five bob in his pocket”.

Early in the film, we see Raymond at the start of his porn career, when he put on shows with lion tamers and naked girls, posing like statues. Under the Lord Chamberlain’s regulations, the nudes were not allowed to move.

We see his marriage to Jean (Anna Friel) disintegrate as he shacks up with Richmond. It is all jolly, knockabout stuff but what we are not given is any sense of what drives Raymond (beyond his love of sex and property).

Coogan, a very skilled comedian and impersonator, is playing a character who is putting on an act. It’s little surprise, then, that at times, his Paul Raymond should seem like one of his comedy characters. His hairdo in the 1970s scenes makes him look strangely like the Formula One racer Jackie Stewart. When he is frolicking with Richmond and multiple other partners in his Ringo Starr-designed flat or spinning a line to the press, he’s hard to take seriously.

The key relationship is that between Raymond and his daughter, Debbie (Imogen Poots). She is a volatile figure with a self-destructive streak but he dotes on her and wants her to take over his empire. Poots conveys very movingly her character’s contradictions: her reckless hedonism but also her vulnerability. Just as Citizen Kane tried to turn his mistress into a famous opera singer, Raymond underwrites her attempts at becoming a star, putting her in one of his more preposterous shows. She doesn’t need to take her clothes off but she is required to sing – and she simply can’t cut it.

Debbie is by far the most complex character in The Look Of Love, the only one who really has an interior life. In his scenes with her, the film takes on some emotional urgency. Elsewhere, though, it plays like an enjoyable but one-dimensional comedy skit.

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