Sean Ellis’ Metro Manila is, so far, most likely to snap up a distribution deal. It’s a thriller in the same vein as City of God; a faux-gritty depiction of indigent struggle that can’t help but give way to generic signposting and neat resolutions. A passable genre entry professing to be something more, the film takes matters seriously enough to be considered as a critique on exploitation and corruption, though its priority is to simply entertain.
The film dives headfirst into its conceit in the opening minutes. Oscar Ramirez (Jake Macapagal) and his wife Mai (Althea Vega) promptly decide they’ve had quite enough of poverty-stricken existence in the Philippine mountains, and set forth with their two children to Metro Manila in the hopes of starting anew. What awaits them there is a less-than-idyllic arrangement; Ramirez joins an armoured truck company and naively walks into a setup with violent repercussions, while his wife endangers both herself and her children by electing to work as an escort in an inner-city strip club.
Nothing is too difficult to decipher here, belying the feature’s accessibility: both Ramirez and his wife are clearly opening themselves up to exploitation as a means to survive in the unforgiving environment of the big city. Ellis keeps cutting back to their faces upon every decisive moment, regarding their reaction to both disappointing and ostensibly promising instances as a means to drive forward the plot, engender viewer empathy and highlight, perhaps obviously, how these well-disposed family folk are too trusting for their own good.
As they arrive in the city, Ramirez is framed marvelling at the lights of the city, as every cinematic small-fish-in-a-big-pond is predisposed to do. With not a jot of irony, his daughter Angel (Erin Panlilio) asks him if this apparent paradise is where they go when they die. After the family have been turfed out of their squatting nest, they face the exact same environment. This time, their faces reflect the fresh circumstance; the lights have assumed a whole new meaning, overly bright and garish. The world surrounding Ramirez is often unfocused in the shot, foregrounding the father before a busy yet turbid frame.
Aside from this, Ellis’ camera rarely does anything adventurous, nor does he shoot the narrative with an eye to elevate the material above standard genre fare. Plot gradually swamps content as Ramirez sidesteps from familial strife into a modest heist flick that resolves on overly tidy, sentimental grounds. Beginning with the barest, slightest hint of promise, Metro Manila reaches its end tarnished by expository flashbacks, gratifying payoffs and the odd spot of shakycam. As said, a distribution deal could well be imminent.
It’s safe to admit that the festival’s headline attraction, and the feature making the most rounds in the national press, has been Michael Winterbottom’s The Look of Love. It’s the director’s fourth collaboration with Steve Coogan following 24 Hour Party People, A Cock and Bull Story and 2010’s miniseries The Trip. Coogan is ever the chameleon, slipping comfortably into his role as smut baron Paul Raymond to embark on a simultaneously amusing and tragic misadventure that at times seems analogous to Milos Forman’s cinematic treatment of Larry Flynt.
Any misconceptions about Raymond bearing behavioural resemblance to Alan Partridge – Coogan’s most famous and sought after role – in part to his frequent comic rambles and impeccable sense of comic timing, are sadly missing a crucial point. Both characters serve as an extension of Steve Coogan’s personality; his performance as Paul Raymond draws on his own infamous deviant behaviour so often storied in the red-tops. Coogan is no stranger to judgement calls and scrutiny from the pervasive national press, and therefore fits Raymond’s skin like a glove.
Surrounding Raymond are an ever-revolving cast of characters, loyal to a point, but fundamentally impermanent fixtures of his life’s arc the moment they wrest independent control of their own. The journey begins with wife Jean (Anna Friel), continues with lover and business partner Fiona Richmond (Tamsin Egerton) and is haunted all the long way by tragic daughter Debbie, in a star turn from Imogen Poots. Her fate and its aftermath is the framing device for Raymond’s recollection of the film’s narrative. Chris Addison as Tony Power and James Lance as Carl Snitcher round out the yes-men, who along with a parade of scantily clad, mostly naked women, help support a palatable backdrop against which Raymond sustains his immortal persona. “This is not the right time,” Raymond tells his (eventual) ex-wife Jean at their daughter’s funeral. “No, it never is with you,” she replies.
Being Paul Raymond is a 24/7 vocation. The man’s real name is, unremarkably, Geoffrey Quinn, though he’d prefer a woman perceive him as a James Bond archetype. His house is built to resemble a villain’s lair; it’s allegedly designed by Ringo Starr – as he so often reminds us – and comes complete with a “missile silo” bedroom for added flavour. Beyond this bubble, Debbie Raymond exists as an entry point to the safety – or threat, as Raymond regards it – of normal life. But instead of replicating the efforts of others who attempt unsuccessfully to force him into the real world, she yields to his vantage point without his coercion.
Winterbottom directs Raymond’s exploits with a sharp precision, barnstorming through his glory years with a celebratory rhythm comprised of snaps, flashes and decorative lighting. The production design is on point; 70s fashion and hairpieces scored by music of the era pointedly evoke the seedy yet undeniably alluring culture that Raymond helped to cultivate.
Yet for all its flash, The Look of Love never really rises above anything other than a decent portrayal of Raymond; not of his life, but his life lesson.
Biopics are traditionally strange and difficult frameworks to pull off, simply because a human life is too long, complex and nuanced to be dwindled down into a 2 hour summation of a single, defining theme.
But what’s striking about The Look of Love is that it openly settles for a beginning and an end within the overall lifespan of Geoffrey Quinn, the man: that of Paul Raymond, the caricature. His daughter now dead, Raymond sits alone, old and grey, silently watching a video interview in which she details their loving relationship. The character of Raymond isn’t gone, per se, but the essence of the man we saw exhibit such raucous behaviour in the preceding 90 minutes is now deflated to a weakened shrivel, and the film has lease to conclude on that sombre note. Debbie Raymond is dead, and yet from beyond the grave she still praises, in words and in song, the man who led her into the heart of darkness. You can’t quite drink to that.
Sundance London 2013 takes place at the o2, Greenwich, London from 25-28 April.