Sex on film is a tricky business. Orson Welles once argued that the ‘physical act of love’ was the one of only two things (along with praying) that you could never accurately depict on screen: and it remains true, even if in recent years all manner of actual unsimulated sex acts have slipped past the watchful eyes of a BBFC board determined to disarm film geeks who grew up on banned nunchucks and video nasties. It remains true because, of course, Welles wasn’t referring to actually showing the fleshy mechanics of sex – his argument was that the heady emotional cocktail you actually experience when you’re having sex just isn’t something that will translate adequately into another medium.
Paul Raymond, aka The King of Soho, aka Steve Coogan in Michael Winterbottom’s biopic The Look Of Love, would have disagreed with Welles’s sentiments in the strongest possible terms, having spent his whole life attempting – and, for the most part, succeeding – to turn the sex he surrounded himself with into mass-market entertainment and, naturally, into a tidy profit, riding the coat-tails of a sex industry borne of the progressive 60s and 70s era to a multi-million pound fortune and a Central London property empire.
In The Look Of Love we’re first introduced to Raymond at the end of his career, after he’s established a stranglehold on the strip of peep shows, sex shops and strip bars along Berwick Street in London and long after his (possibly self-appointed) coronation as The King of Soho (the original title for the film before a rival biopic, made in conjunction with the Raymond family, cried foul and left Winterbottom’s film with its current ‘hey-we-need-something-will-this-do’ title).
We then follow the story of his personal and professional journey over the course of the next three decades, with these two facets of his life consistently, hopelessly intertwined (it’s telling that all of the women in his life also work for him). We move from his bawdy on-stage sex comedies to the gynecological intensity of his Men Only magazines in the late 80s; from his loyal, sexually liberal wife (Anna Friel) to a leggy, even more liberal younger model (Tamsin Edgerton); and finally to his relationship with his daughter (Imogen Poots), the heir to the Raymond empire who idolises her father while struggling to establish herself as a talent in her own right.
The incredible job Coogan and Winterbottom did in recreating the world of post-punk Manchester in 24 Hour Party People suggests that they’d be the ideal team to pull us into the seedy underbelly of Soho in its grubby prime. So it’s surprising then just how mediocre and uninvolving The Look of Love feels: it’s unconvincing even as a time capsule, with daft clothes, pube-y wigs (looking at you, Chris Addison) and repeated, hackneyed montages of hedonism left to paper over the cracks left by a staid screenplay and uncharacteristically flat direction from Winterbottom.
Also, for a film ostensibly about sex and exploitation, it’s surprisingly prudish, even when it moves on to the Men Only years: everyone who has sex in The Look Of Love is either a) softly lit, b) in a montage, and they pretty much always look as if they’re having fun. The closest the film comes to acknowledging the seedy nature of the business is when a character is compelled to leave a relationship due to the partner’s appetite for group sex, but even then their disquiet at having to participate in relentless, coke-fuelled orgies is registered onscreen with little more than an mildly exasperated ‘you left the toilet seat up’ eyeroll.
The performances are also something of an issue – of all the big-screen variations of the Steve Coogan persona that Coogan has given in Winterbottom’s films (not a criticism, by the way – most of the great film stars in history operate within certain parameters) this is the least successful. Coogan is a fine actor and has demonstrated dramatic chops in the past, but every time it feels as if he’s going to tap into something interesting with his performance as Raymond, it’s undercut with a Partridge-ism shorthand for a quick laugh that can’t help but distance you from Raymond as a character in his own right.
This isn’t just a problem with Coogan – while the story of Raymond’s life has the ready-made structure of a Greek tragedy, the supporting cast is predominantly filled with familiar faces from British comedy, including Matt Lucas, David Walliams, Chris Addison, Miles Jupp and Stephen Fry, which, along with the film’s nudge-nudge wink-wink attitude to sex, makes it feel more like a late period Carry On film than the British Boogie Nights it would clearly like to be. It’s a shame, as the central family/relationship storyline constantly threatens to be involving, only for Will from The Inbetweeners to show up and start being Will from The Inbetweeners, swiftly robbing the film of its dramatic momentum.
There are good performances here, though – particularly from Anna Friel, who brings reliable gravitas and humanity to her role as a strong, liberated woman baffled by her husband’s behaviour, and Imogen Poots, whose offbeat, heart-breaking performance is the most interesting thing about The Look Of Love while still feeling as if it belongs in a different film.
For all of its many flaws The Look Of Love is diverting enough for most of its running time, but we have to expect more from Coogan and Winterbottom, who together have served up three of the funniest, most inventive British films of the past decade in 24 Hour Party People, A Cock And Bull Story, and The Trip. Put succinctly, for a sex-comedy drama, The Look Of Love just isn’t sexy, funny or dramatic enough.
The Look Of Love is out in UK cinemas now.
Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.