Much like Paul Raymond (Steve Coogan), the man it profiles in a strikingly unimaginative linear fashion, Michael Winterbottom’s The Look of Love is curiously devoid of any real emotional centre, and thus any meaningful connection with its audience.
It makes sense I suppose if you acknowledge one of the central tenets of Matt Greenhalgh’s screenplay which is that Raymond, an extraordinary character who built an empire out of revue shows filled with scanilty-clad women, an expansive Soho, London-based real estate portfolio, and girl magazines that included Men Only and Mayfair, was a man of startlingly limited emotional means.
You gain the impression time and again throughout this emotionally-univolving biopic that the self-absorbed yet charismatic Raymond had a handle on everything but Cupid’s abundant gift, viewing his entire life through a self-serving material prism, his relationships crippled by a lack of true empathy and caring.
That he loved in some crude fashion is never denied.
His daughter Debbie, possessed of limited acting and acting talent, though armed with a prodigious devotion to her father who doted on her in return, was the undeniable love of his life.
But his expressions of love for her were flawed, and not those of a typical father, characterised by codependent drug use (even helping her to do a line of cocaine during the delivery of one of his granddaughters), indulging of her every whim from cakes to revues created in her name, and an inability to set any meaningful, healthy boundaries.
By contrast he almost ignored his son Howard (Matthew Beard), whose only contact with his father was via publicity-managed cricket games, leaving him estranged from a man whose idea of fatherhood was feast or famine, with very little in between.
Similarly while he could display great loyalty to those in his inner circle, once you displeased him in some way, you were summarily banished, a fate which befell the instigator of his magazine empire, Tony Power (Chris Addision) and long time love Fiona Richmond aka Amber (Tamsin Egerton), after she left him, tired of his many infidelities.
This is not of course to say he was some sort of unfeeling monster.
On the contrary with business associates, family or his beloved publicity-granting press, he was a genuinely warm cheesy oneliner-delivering bon vivant with a Richard Branson-esque flair for drawing attention to himself, and the charm to make the most of it when the spotlight did fall on him, as it so often did.
But this avuncular persona, authentic though it might have been, only went so far down, and it soon becomes apparent in Winterbottom’s retelling of his life, that very little of any emotional depth lies beneath this rather chipper, glib exterior.
Hence Raymond is not much cruel and unfeeling as he is emotionally-hobbled by his inability to see life beyond a rather truncated gold-encrusted vantage point.
This becomes starkly evident when he is addressing the press after the tragic drug overdose death of his much-loved daughter, Debbie (Imogen Poots) in 1992, and remarks that he couldn’t understand why it happened since she “had all the money in the world, beautiful cars, a beautiful house, beautiful daughters.”
Genuinely bewildered in the aftermath of her passing that the possession of these material goods weren’t enough to safeguard his much-indulged daughter against a life devoid of any purpose or real achievement, he retreats to his Ringo Starr-designed apartment, largely retiring from public life, till his death in 2008 at the age of 82.
Time and again, this man who could construct the most visually impressive crowd-pleasing shows, fails to notice that his financially-driven self-absorbed evaluations of the events and people in his life brings little but loss and pain to those disadvantaged by his decisions.
For instance, when he cancels his daughter’s specially-designed revue show meant to launch her showbiz career, on typically cold, hard financial grounds, he fails to appreciate that explaining the reason why he made the decision would be enough to assuage her devastated reaction to the news.
Later on, he treats his first meeting with his long lost illegitimate son Derry (Liam Boyle) as if it was simply another appointment to cross off his crowded calendar, failing to notice the disappointment on the young man’s face when he ushers him out the door with a cursory, unfeeling “see you around”.
He also brushes off the anger and distress hurled at him by his wife Jean (Anne Friel) when he moves beyond the acceptable one night stands with the girls in the erotica-driven revue shows that made him wealthy and takes up with the bold, confidant Fiona who is eventually treated with the same casual disregard as the woman she displaces.
It appears that for his publicity-seeking stunts, roguish charm, and love of the high life, he was a man wading in a very shallow emotional pool, so it makes sense in a way that Winterbottom would have a hard time getting a fix on a man who possessed little of any real substance to dig into.
Unfortunately what this means for the audience is that we are left merely watching the larger than life events of an extraordinary life happen before us, with little to no emotional investment in any of them including the enormously sad death of his daughter.
That Coogan fills the role of Raymond as fully as he is able is beyond question.
But he is hampered by the limited palette given to him, and again merely succeeds in bringing to life the events of Raymond’s life rather than the man himself.
Regrettably The Look of Love, a rare misstep by a supremely talented director, while visually a treat for the eyes with its authentically recreated visions of the swinging ’60s and the free-wheeling ’70s, ends up a curiously at-arm’s-length though eminently watchable retelling of one amazing man’s extraordinary journey, ultimately unable to bring to life the one thing that matters in any biopic – the life of the person being featured.