Steve Coogan slips into the Loafers of the Partridge of porno, Paul Raymonde.
When Michael Winterbottom made 9 Songs in 2004, he pulled off the impressive feat of getting the kind of hardcore bongo action into British cinema screens that would have made the subject of this biopic, Paul Raymond, weep from every orifice with envy.
9 Songs marked a serious attempt to portray the actuality of an essential human experience that most films only précis: a My Dinner With Andre for the genitals, if you will. The Bri-nylon tit-and-bum parade that encapsulated the career of erotic cabaret impresario Raymond was altogether less high-minded but, arguably, equally as honest in intention.
His aim was to cater to the desires of a newly affluent section of the British public, who were encountering continental attitudes towards sex and nudity through foreign holidays and mail-order magazines. And they rather enjoyed what they found.
This should be fertile territory for Winterbottom. The historical setting of '70s and '80s Soho forms the kind of enclosed world rich in contradictions and tragi-comic characters that worked so well in 24 Hour Party People. He has Steve Coogan as the oddly vulnerable Geoffrey Quinn, who reinvents himself as priapic Paul Raymond to snort and shag his way to billionairedom via nude revues and jazz mags such as Men Only and Mayfair.
The screen heaves with acres of toned flesh and much exquisite period detail. There are also some great one-liners, facial hair and merkin work that would have done Gods And Generals proud. Plus a supporting cast that mostly delivers more than the script offers. So why does the film feel like a plod from one (admittedly well-turned) vignette to the next? There’s an identity crisis here and it isn’t between Geoffrey Quinn and his glamorous alter-ego.
The film is structured in flashback, with intrusive headshots of Raymond in later life lost in reminiscence which initially suit the rise-and-fall (ish) narrative. But when the story suddenly switches to focus on Raymond’s relationship with his ill-fated daughter Debbie (Imogen Poots) and his attempts to fulfil her showbiz ambitions, the film stumbles. Scenes which appear to promise some element of darkness seem oddly truncated, as if Winterbottom is clenching off on his emotional vinegar strokes.
There are also aspects of the story left unexplored that would have made for a more satisfying whole: in one montage scene, for example, an all-back-to-mine session at Raymond’s flash pad becomes a coke-fuelled orgy. At the start, Debbie is clearly present, but later when things get hot and heavy, we don’t see her.
It’s not just a prurient question – her decline is central to the film’s later stages and the notion that she regularly witnessed Dad’s cluster-fun in a snowblind haze is relevant. It’s one of several frustrating sidesteps that hamstring the film’s emotional impact and betrays a bizarre squeamishness that jars with Raymond’s personal 'anything goes' philosophy.
Were The Look Of Love a debut feature, we might hail it as an assured if flawed take on a controversial character. But Winterbottom is one of Britain’s most consistently interesting filmmakers and we, particularly with a team like this, have a right to expect something more than a bum steer.
Coogan is never better than when Winterbottom directs.
The film seems to have been replaced by a compendium of five-minute standalone scenes.
Raymond would probably have approved – which might not be such a good thing.