Paul Raymond, the Grand Master of 70s pornography and the self proclaimed King of Soho, is the central character in this biopic by Michael Winterbottom, based on Paul Willets book, Men Only - and yet Winterbottom's film is as much about the people around Paul Raymond as it is about the man himself.
The film begins with Paul Raymond - played here by a superb Steve Coogan - mourning the evident loss of his daughter Debbie, reflecting on his life and relationship with her via an old video recording. Hounded by the media outside his Mayfair penthouse he is a shadow of what he once was, grey, tired, backlit. The film then flashes back to the humble almost-beginnings of Paul Raymond, telling in turn each significant phase of his life and success - from the era of the Raymond Revue Bar and the notorious (but unsurprisingly successful) Pyjama Nights theatre show right through to his later success with the Men Only magazine.
Winterbottom and his production designers capture beautifully the design aesthetic of the era - the penthouse flat, which Raymond brags was designed for him by Ringo Starr, is particularly noteworthy - and together with the excellently chosen soundtrack and crisp cinematography capture a real sense of the colour and hedonism at the heart of this man's life in the 1960s, 1970s and beyond. In fact the style, design and structure of the film reminded me very much of both Boogie Nights and Goodfellas.
Coogan is on top form, and while some people many see his performance at Paul Raymond as just a pastiche of Alan Partridge, I for one don't. For in the same way that the well known and well loved radio journalist from Norwich is something of an alter ego for Coogan, the idea of Paul Raymond himself is just an act, a face that the man wears for the public (and often for his private life). From the outset when we discover that his real name is Geoffrey Quinn we see a man who is forever hiding behind something, keen to portray himself as something very different to his real existence. His ignorance of both his legitimate and illegitimate sons; his outwardly normal and happy relationships with women(which both eventually break down); his twisting of words and meaning to justify his business - here is a man who spends his life stripping away the veneer of respectability in public life with exhibitions of voyeurism and pornography and yet one who keeps his own very private and personal existence hidden from view, the only seemingly genuine emotion and touching moment when he watches old video footage of his daughter. Despite the hordes of women, despite the money, despite the power Paul Raymond never seems genuinely happy. Everything is a mask for a hollowness that is only filled ultimately by the presence of his daughter.
Imogen Poots pushes to the fore as Raymond's wayward daughter Debbie. The film is as much about the destructive life she leads than that of her father - in fact you could see her downfall as paying the price for his father's sins. Encouraged into areas where she had no talent (Imogen Poots off-key singing was at the same time humorous and tragic) and tempted by the drugs and easy-to-sleazy lifestyle around her father it is inevitable that it would be she who's fragility and delicacy is torn apart. The only character for whom Paul Raymond feels any lasting emotion is the one character he drives to the edge of destruction, ultimately watching as she crashes and burns over the edge.
The actress plays the part masterfully and I choose the words "fragility" and "delicacy" quite deliberately - she manages to never loose that school girl naivety and innocence, even when playing Debbie at a much older age. It's quite an affecting turn from Imogen Poots, who's talent and beauty will surely mark her out as a very big star in the future.
Other cast members are also effective - Chris Addison as the somewhat slimy Tony Power; Anna Friel as Raymond's first wife Jean; Tamsin Egerton as the club dancer with whom he runs off. There are also a series of cameo performances from familiar faces that give this film a genuinely British feel, of the like normally associated with older, classic British movies. Perhaps it's the accompanying soundtrack and design styles in play but this feels like The Italian Job, or Alfie; or Blow-Up. Simon Dee wouldn't look out of place driving off in his sports car with a blonde in the passenger seat (in fact there is something of a homage to the credits of his 1960s TV show Dee Time in the film).
I was fortunate enough to see this at an advance screening of the film at the Bradford International Film Festival, where the screenwriter Matthew Greenhalgh fielded questions from the audience. Challenged about the sexual politics of both the film and pornography in general Greenhalgh seemed somewhat overwhelmed.
But this isn't a film about feminism, or the rights and wrongs of pornography and its politics. The film-makers are showing us a classical tale of rise and fall, and of how even someone who essentially uses people for the pleasures of others can still have the redeeming feature of love, even if he doesn't realise it until it is far too late. This film is not just about Paul Raymond's life and career but also about his relationship with his daughter and how she was ultimately sacrificed to the lifestyle he chose. I'm sure there is a film about the politics of pornography in this story but to have entertained us with it wouldn't have been half as interesting - or successful as I feel this film ultimately is.