Steve Coogan and Michael Winterbottom are an incendiary pair. From 24 Hour Party People to Tristram Shandy, the actor-director duo produce a potent synergy that is hard to pin down. Given the cult success of these earlier two films, it is surprising how conventional The Look of Love is by comparison.
This is by no means detrimental to this incredibly lavish and emotionally bruising production, an effortless period piece that recounts the true story of Britain's richest man. Spanning decades it recounts his personal demons and familial woes that never seem to undermine his intrepid ambition.
Paul Raymond's (Coogan) notorious journey to success began in 1958, when he opened a groundbreaking gentlemen's nightclub - the cornerstone of Raymond's Soho empire which included a men's magazine, nude theatre productions and millions in real estate. With such a high profile, however, comes unfettered invasion of privacy and his personal life was as scandalous as his shows.
The Look of Love is a jaded biography of a fractured family amidst the glitzy limelight, excess and decadence. The film is chronological, following Raymond's exploits and relationships. His grounded first wife Jean (Anna Friel) accepts his constant cavorting and the open relationship seems to work - she concedes the pleasures of the flesh differ to that of the heart. It is not long however before Paul falls deeply in love with Fiona Richmond (Tamsin Egerton), a glamour model he casts in his shows which destroys his marriage.
As the years pass the real issue in Raymond's life becomes his inability to be a good father to his daughter Debbie (Imogen Poots). He leads her into his life of excess, gives her the lead in productions and unknowingly corrupts her in the process. Cocaine binges, orgies and absurd purchases go hand-in-hand with Raymond's wealth, but the side effects on his significant others are the tragic elements that carry the films emotional punches.
The design of the film is masterful - decades pass by without any notification, the music, fashion and style changes effortlessly and blends into the overall story. The district of Soho is given the full treatment and transforms into a bustling chic locale driven by Raymond's success. With these changes come the political and societal ramifications of running such a provocative operation and Raymond begins to feel these effects.
The film occasionally pauses and reflects on a much older Paul, he says nothing but his face is filled with regret. This is juxtaposed with scenes of his daughter's decline. The film balances tragic family drama and fun flaunting wealthy lifestyle with ease. Behind the velvet curtains and mirrored ceiling lies a deep pain that is gradually uncovered. The film however remains imbued with the playful sexiness that Raymond promotes; liberal nudity and gorgeous women are used at the right time and place and never cheapen proceedings.
The credit for this deep focus on Raymond and his truly life story cannot solely go to the always excellent Steve Coogan. The supporting cast is extremely strong and demonstrate significant character growth as the years wear on. Paul's ex-wives and estranged children have all been damaged by his negligence and ignorance, and revisiting them as time passes provides an emotional resonance that casts a shadow over Paul's selfish callousness.
Coogan's performance ensures that the character of Raymond is a conflicted and complex one and not simply a terribly greedy rich man. The lion's share of praise however should fall to Imogen Poots, whose performance as Debbie and her transformation from rich daughter brat to broken and confused young adult is a seamless and heart wrenching one.
The Look of Love, like Soderbergh's Behind The Candelabra, is an excellent period biography filled with auteur style and attention to detail that works to enhance the emotional core of the story. While Coogan and Poots' performance alone can carry the film, almost every element works and is balanced well thanks to Winterbottom's excellent direction.
The Look of Love is out now on DVD and Blu-ray in Australia.