Lacking the style and verve of Boogie Nights, this porn star biopic is saved by a wonderful cast

When anti-pornography campaigner Linda Marchiano died following a car accident in April 2002, it represented a tragic end to a life tinged with sadness and hardship. Marchiano had once been, for a time, amongst the most famous people in America.

Under the screen name Linda Lovelace she had starred in 1972’s iconic skin flick Deep Throat. That film heralded the age of ‘porno chic’ in which adult entertainment became a mainstream genre – New Yorkers famously queued around the block to see the Lovelace offering – embracing production values, scripts and even plots.

Box office figures were never properly confirmed, but anywhere around $50 million is far from inaccurate, nor insignificant. As the face of this brand, the star’s career was brief but stellar. In Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s Lovelace, the sheen is scraped away to explore the inevitably seedy events that precipitated her rise to prominence.

In spite of the duo having made directorial careers in documentaries, Lovelace is very much a straight biopic, though it covers a relatively brief time period. It is surprisingly formulaic and, considering the subject matter, slightly tame, in tone at least. Given that Lovelace endured an unhappy and deeply exploitative marriage during these years, the movie fails, rather profoundly, to convey the true misery of her ordeal.

It is possible, however, that she was able to weather these storms thanks to a strength of character eloquently captured by Amanda Seyfried in the title role. One of the more accomplished young performers in American cinema, Seyfried has served her time in crowd-pleasing fare – Mama Mia!, Dear John, Les Misérables – where her talent has long stood out.

Ethereal in the otherwise dreadful Red Riding Hood and genuinely unsettling as a high-end escort in the little-seen Chloe, Seyfried has already demonstrated her ability to carry a picture. So it proves here as she imbues Linda with an innocence and goodness that never really leaves her.

That is not to say Lovelace takes her troubles in her stride. By the end she is wearied and somewhat cowed by life, but there is courage also, which mirrors Seyfried’s own brave performance. The porn industry of the early 1970s was a very sleazy world, but the actress is unafraid to embrace the demands required by the role. Little is left to the imagination, and in an era before airbrushing – when the typical adult film actress represented a fantasy prototype – Lovelace came from left field: blemishes, scars, freckles and all.

Whatever Lovelace’s faults, they should not be linked to its excellent cast, with Hank Azaria, Chris Noth and Bobby Cannavale outstanding as the men calling the shots behind Deep Throat. Azaria and Noth, in particular, save their characters from falling into insalubrious clichés.

As Linda’s religious parents, Robert Patrick and an unrecognisable Sharon Stone excel with limited screen time. Stone is astonishing, exhibiting both vindictiveness – as she coldly sends Linda back to an abusive husband – and outright hostility. When the emotionless mask finally shatters it is a far cry from those moments that made her a household name.

Praise must go also to the characteristically superb Peter Sarsgaard as Lovelace’s husband Chuck Traynor – a minor hustler who first encounters Linda while he trawls a Florida roller rink.

Fresh from a wonderfully complex turn in US television’s The Killing, there are few who can pull off ambiguously creepy better than Sarsgaard, and he ekes every last drop from an underwritten part. Even with superficial charm and an undercurrent of malice, he manages to portray Traynor as more than a simple villain of the piece, a fate lesser actors may well have given in to.

It is in such simplicity, however, that Lovelace ultimately disappoints. Naïve and still damaged by her recent abortion, the young Linda is a long way from the figure she would become. Yet, in spite of Seyfried’s efforts, the lack of a conceivable bridge between these two versions of herself is one of the film’s main pitfalls.

Furthermore, what was obviously a complex relationship between the lead couple remains something of a mystery. Whatever the hold Traynor had over Lovelace, there is little sense of its power.

Indeed, the fractured chronology employed by the directors to expand on the man’s despicable nature feels not only indulgent, but redundant due to the fairly negative colours in which he is already painted. His domestic abuse and fondness for occasionally pimping his wife out to strangers come as absolutely no surprise.

In stark contrast to the style and verve of the similarly themed Boogie Nights, Lovelace is a serviceable but dour look at an age when the sexual revolution was still transforming society. If nothing else, it debunks any notion that glamour and happiness can be achieved through exploitation.

Lovelace runs at Queen’s Film Theatre, Belfast until September 5.