Review of Prick Up Your Ears
I`d completely forgotten just how good this film is. Quite apart from its obvious biographical interest, it`s a brilliant study of an explosive relationship followed through to its grim finale.
The title was based on Kenneth Halliwell`s suggested title for Orton`s screenplay for a Beatle`s movie that never happened. It was also the eventual title of John Lahr`s brilliant biography of playwright and man about town Joe Orton. The book was everything a good biography should be, well researched and factually accurate (often based on Orton`s own diaries). But it also evoked much of the emotional landscape upon which Orton`s colourful life was played.
But a great book doesn`t necessarily make a great film. In this case, a first class screenplay combines with some outstanding performances to make the movie one of the most impressive of its decade. Director Stephen Frears (High Fidelity) persuaded his old collaborator Alan Bennett (Frears had directed some of his TV plays) to pen the screenplay and it`s just brilliant. The dialogue is just incredible - a real gift for the cast.
(Here`s just one example of Bennett`s dry wit. At Orton and Halliwell`s funeral, his literary agent delivers this killer line when Leonie Orton is concerned that she`s mixing too much of Joe`s ashes compared to Ken`s. "It`s a gesture dear…not a recipe`. Wonderful!)
The casting of the film was as near to perfect as imaginable too. Gary Oldman seemed born to play the role which he does effortlessly, and Alfred Molina not only looked exactly like Kenneth Halliwell, he plays this complex and intense character brilliantly.
("The whole point about irrational behaviour is that it IS irrational!") .
The film has a complex structure whereby it moves up and down the time-line of Orton`s life, relatively seamlessly, even to the point that biographer John Lahr comes into the picture. (It`s his conversations with those who knew Orton that get so much of the background across).
However, it focuses mainly on Orton`s hey-day year, circa `64 - `67, from Orton`s runaway success in the West-End (with his plays `Loot` and `Entertaining Mr. Sloane`) through to his untimely demise at the hands of his crazed lover, Kenneth Halliwell.
The narrative here is less about Orton alone, but rather on the complicated relationship shared by Orton and Halliwell. It`s clear that Orton fell under Halliwell`s sophisticated spell when they met at RADA in the early sixties. Orton was fresh from provincial Leicester and Halliwell was an older, well-read sophisticate with a healthy cynical wit. The two became lovers and rented a small room in a house in an unfashionable part of London. Despite great success some years later, the two never left these humble lodgings.
The film is played out in a very grey looking London, and there is seediness to Frear`s vision that is unrelenting until the brief sojourn to Tangiers where things noticeably brighten up. (Kenneth Williams is noticeably absent though it`s now known that he was part of the gang).
The switch from Halliwell`s dominance as creative superior to Orton`s is divided here by a brief spell (6 months) in jail where the two were separated. (They had filled their unemployed hours re-writing the dust jackets of books from their local library with pornographic descriptions until they were caught).
Once out of prison, it`s clear that Orton has found his voice. Halliwell is increasingly frustrated and envious of Orton`s success and recognition which he feels should be equally shared.
Orton is also a promiscuous lover who, physically neglecting the balding Halliwell, is constantly on the lookout for casual encounters.
The eventual mental demise of Halliwell, and the treatment of his murder of Orton and his own suicide make for depressing viewing. But it also felt inevitable and believable too.
This is a very poor transfer. Just how poor is very evident at the outset when we see white captions out of black that are hardly legible. Soft, broken and blurred, this is not a great start. Things improve slightly (but not much) and you`ll find that this disappointing transfer is saved through the sheer power of performance here. Shameful. Let`s hope that this will get a well-deserved makeover soon.
Very average original stereo.
I`d love to have seen some. …but there`s nothing here. Let`s hope this brilliant film gets the `Special Edition` treatment soon.
This film was quite possibly one of the finest movies of its decade. With a first class screenplay, and incredible performances from Oldman and Molina, it`s a breath-takingly good biopic. Within its two hours you`ll feel that there is little you don`t know about Orton, both factually and emotionally.
The destructive relationship shared by Orton with his long-time lover and partner Halliwell is played out with such incredibly touching reality that its harrowing conclusions seem entirely inevitable.
Whilst this may not be a feel-good movie, it`s a very, very good one.
This edition may be woefully lacking in extras or care in transfer, but in the absence of a better edition you may want to add it your collection anyway.