Veneer of morality on sex-and-drugs tale


Review Drama

Duration: 90 minutes

Rating: 3/5

The story: Based on the life story of British property magnate, strip club owner and soft-porn magazine publisher Paul Raymond (played by Steve Coogan) the movie tracks his rise from struggling stage magician to real estate tycoon, dubbed "the king of Soho". Balancing out the rags-to-riches story is a focus on the relationship between Raymond the indulgent father and his troubled daughter Debbie (Imogen Poots).

This is a film about a man surrounded by drugs and nudity, and one that does not shy away from showing copious amounts of either.

That is how director Michael Winterbottom (Welcome To Sarajevo, 1997) works when it comes to film-making: He prefers to let images tell the story, letting the viewer decide. There is a clinical starkness to those scenes of sex and drug-taking, free of moral judgment save for the upbeat soundtrack and post-production colour saturation to show what it was like to be rich and reckless in the Swinging Sixties and in the Disco Seventies.

But nobody would want to watch a film about the rise of a shallow hedonist, a man without the free-speech principles of porn publisher Larry Flynt (the subject of The People Vs Larry Flynt, 1996).

Depth and humanity here come from the relationship between Raymond and his daughter Debbie (Poots). The script by Matt Greenhalgh, known for his work on the acclaimed biopics on John Lennon (Nowhere Boy, 2009) and Joy Division's Ian Curtis (Control, 2007), bookends the film with the consequences arising from Raymond's style of upbringing, and the film is largely told in flashback from the point of view of an older, sadder man.

While the device is the most satisfyingly complex part of the feature, it is also the most problematic. It coats this biopic in the veneer of a morality tale - Raymond cannot be allowed to get away with a pleasure-filled life based on wealth gained from sexual exploitation.

Winterbottom is too subtle a film-maker for clunkiness, but perhaps he had no choice, based on the facts of Raymond's life.

The tonal shifts, too, are very rough around the edges, as the film moves back and forth in time and from chapter to chapter in Raymond's life. Again, that can be read as Winterbottom's commitment to honesty, the doing away with biopic tropes that show time passing (fades, dissolves, newspaper headlines).

Coogan is very good here as cocky, publicity-seeking Raymond, a businessman who, for a couple of decades, knew exactly what his countrymen wanted but were afraid to seek, and who knew how to sell it to them.

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