One of the UK's most versatile and interesting directors, Michael Winterbottom, is a hard man to pigeonhole. Teaming again with Steve Coogan, whom he collaborated with on 24 Hour Party People and the wonderful The Trip, his latest is a biopic of Paul Raymond, the controversial figure who became the 'King of Soho', pulling crowds with risque theatre at his nightclub and successfully branching out into the world of magazines with his bestselling lad's mag, Men Only.
The action opens with a shaken Raymond (Coogan) pondering tragic events involving his daughter and driving around the district of London he rules with a small child, pointing out the business he owns, markers not just of his great wealth but also his striving for respectability. His rise was marked by his audacity and knack for turning setbacks to his advantage when a newspaper condemns one of his theatrical productions for including "arbitrary displays of naked flesh", he slaps the quote on the promotional poster as a selling point.
After leaving his family for his mistress, Richmond finds himself on the wrong end of an expensive divorce settlement ("I think you'll find it's the most expensive divorce settlement in UK history” he corrects reporters), but remains focused on empire building. Along the way he reconnects with his daughter Debbie (an excellent Imogen Poots), whose ambitions of stardom are not accommodated by the public and whose frail confidence is boosted by lashings of champagne and cocaine.
Moving from the swinging sixties to the darker onset of disco, Raymond continues to show an unerring sense for what the public want and gleefully pushes the boundaries with his magazines and live shows. He intuited what the public wanted was a taste of his hedonistic, womanising lifestyle. Yet behind the glamorous facade, there was a melancholy underside to his life, with Raymond's inability to let go of his humble beginnings and his unusual relationship with his daughter forming the wounded heart of this impressive biopic.
Impeccable in its period detail and scored by the sweeping melodrama of Burt Bacharach songs, The Look of Love gives the always watchable Coogan meaty, complex material to wrestle with. Some will be disappointed at the way it brushes over the darker corners of his porn empire; Raymond had a way of deflecting difficult questions that the film also uses. Whether Raymond deserves such a sympathetic biography is debatable, but there is no questioning the aplomb with which Coogan and Winterbottom have brought this contradictory and ultimately quite sad figure to life.