Empty tale of a king of the underworld

THE LOOK OF LOVEDirected by Michael WinterbottomWritten by Matt GreenhalghRated MA15+, 101 minutesDendy Opera Quays, Dendy Newtown, Palace Verona, Cremorne Orpheum, Hoyts Cinema Paris, AvalonReviewer’s rating: 3 and a half out of 5 stars

This is a love story without much love. Paul Raymond (Steve Coogan) was the ”King of Soho” in London’s West End from 1958, when he opened Britain’s first strip club, until the early ’90s, when his daughter Debbie (Imogen Poots) died of an overdose.

That is the love story, a father’s love for his daughter, but it lacks something, perhaps deliberately. So is that the film’s big question? Can a man with infinite freedom to indulge in earthly pleasures ever partake of those of the spirit? Does too much champagne rot your heart (what a horrid idea)?

The film begins after her death, as a grieving Raymond glides through Soho in his Rolls-Royce, accompanied by his granddaughter, who wants to know why he buys so many houses. He owns more than 50, he says. He is the richest man in Britain, in fact, and he might be the saddest, although it is hard to tell.

There is an absence at the heart of him, which may be why Coogan persuaded his friend Michael Winterbottom to make the film. Empty characters interest Coogan. His most famous comic creation, at least in Britain, is Alan Partridge, a washed-up radio DJ with a mean streak.

Coogan and Winterbottom worked well together on 24 Hour Party People, set in the Manchester music scene, and The Trip, where Coogan and Rob Brydon wandered around Britain. In truth, Coogan is happiest playing a winner who is more of a loser. In that respect, Raymond is perfect for his deadpan, mirthless style of humour. There is a lot of envy in Coogan’s characters, and envy powers Raymond’s pursuit of money and respectability.

That is his most interesting aspect: he wants respect. In the 1950s, when the film is in black-and-white, Raymond is a cheeky spiv from Liverpool, a man on the make in seedy Soho, untroubled by what people think. He explains to a television reporter that he was an entertainer with a mind-reading act when he realised that there was a lot of money to be made by showing off pretty girls with no clothes. In that sense alone, he could read people’s minds, he says.

He enjoys his frequent arrests for flouting Britain’s out-of-date obscenity laws. He’s having fun and so are we, because the film is free-wheeling and kaleidoscopic.Winterbottom’s camera glides through the dingy corridors of his Raymond Revuebar in a collage of textures. It has a Scorsese-like atmosphere of desire: Raymond wants his share of everything and there’s no one saying no, except the Lord Chancellor and the law courts, and who gives a rat’s about them?

At the same time, he’s no gangster. He sends his small children to posh schools and he and his wife Jean (Anna Friel) occupy a large and tasteful house in a leafy section of London. He may sell vulgarity, but he is not outwardly vulgar – or not any more. ”Nothing confers respectability on people so much as property,” he says.

As the film spills into the 1960s, it changes into riotous colour. Amber, a beautiful vicar’s daughter (Tamsin Egerton) auditions for a role in one of his shows. Even with an open marriage, he can’t resist her.

The marriage ends in rancour as he and Amber shack up in the apartment he provides, ”with decor by Ringo Starr” – which might be the funniest line.

Expelled from school, Debbie joins the shows as a fully-clothed singer. Daddy builds an expensive flop around her lack of talent and destroys her when he cancels it. That answers her question: which do you love more, me or the money?

Amber becomes ”Fiona Richmond”, a columnist in his men’s magazines, but even she finds his lifestyle dull after a while.

The Look of Love is the right title, in that sense. The look, rather than the thing itself. As a Midas story, it has distractions rather than attractions.

Winterbottom has so much technique he can make a film without a centre, or one in which the lack of a centre is the point, but what does that leave us with? Money can’t buy me love. Really? Who knew?

Twitter: @ptbyrnes

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.