Entering into a life of grime as a mind-reader in a cabaret act, Liverpudlian chancer Raymond (Coogan) hit upon the bright idea of performing with nude assistants. Struck by the sudden revelation that men enjoy being in the company of naked women, Raymond set about building an empire of gentleman’s clubs, porn magazines and nude theatres across London’s Soho, much to the chagrin of his numerous naysayers. Walking all over both his first wife Jean (Anna Friel) and usurping girlfriend Fiona (Tamsin Egerton), Raymond also let slip the one ‘true love of his life’, daughter and heir apparent Debbie (Imogen Poots), who tragically died of a drug overdose aged just 36.
With a narrative approach not dissimilar to Phyllida Lloyd’s Thatcher biopic The Iron Lady (2011) – and a real-life figure almost as divisive – The Look of Love is bookended by glimpses of an ageing, greying Raymond watching his life story on television, having recently been declared Britain’s richest man. The irony is clear for all to see; Raymond, despite his vast wealth, pushed away those closest to him, unable to invest the same time and effort in human relationships as he did to peddling his own brand of adult entertainment. Ultimately, like Lloyd’s Maggie muser, your level of engagement with both Winterbottom’s film and Coogan’s portrayal will likely hinge upon your ability to empathise with a megalomaniac.
Far more sympathetic is Raymond’s trio of forgotten women. The Look of Love arguably peaks in its opening third thanks to the prominence – and fine performance – of Friel as wife Jean, a former-dancing girl who reaches breaking point due to her husband’s flagrant promiscuity. Friel is pitch-perfect in these early stages, only to be disappointingly introduced later on as a sanitised bottle-blonde. Next on the scene is plucky pretender Fiona, a vicar’s daughter who catches the Soho lothario’s eye after she auditions as a naked swimmer at the iconic Windmill Theatre. Though the least interesting of the three female leads, her bizarre surrogate mother/best friend routine with Debbie is easily the most intriguing relationship dynamic on display.
Whilst it certainly has its moments (Chris Addison’s coke-snorting PR man is, at least, knowingly awful), it’s hard to see The Look of Love as anything other than a backwards step for the WinterCoogan production machine. What could have been a telling and self-reflexive look back at the sexual politics of post-war to Thatcherite Britain has instead ended up just as tawdry and leering as Raymond’s own ‘high class’ establishments – more funny ‘ha ha’ than funny ‘ah-ha’. Throughout the film, Coogan’s smut monarch vehemently rejects the media label of ‘pornographer’, with all the conviction and integrity of a certain washed-up, Norwich-based d-jock.
This review was originally published on 25 April, 2013, as part of our Sundance London coverage.
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