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This film is the story of the spectacular life and violent death of British playwright Joe Orton. In his teens, Orton is befriended by the older, more reserved Kenneth Halliwell, and while the two begin a relationship, it's fairly obvious that it's not all about sex. Orton loves the dangers of bath-houses and liaisons in public restrooms; Halliwell, not as charming or attractive as Orton, doesn't fare so well in those environs. While both long to become writers, it is Orton who achieves fame - his plays "Entertaining Mr. Sloane" and "Loot" become huge hits in London of the sixties, and he's even commissioned to write a screenplay for the Beatles. But Orton's success takes him farther from Halliwell, whose response ended both his life and the life of the up-and-coming playwright.Written by
Gary Dickerson <firstname.lastname@example.org>
When Joe's agent first meets him in 1964, she asks him how he's been supporting himself. He tells her he's on public assistance, getting £3.10 per week. New pence weren't introduced until 1971. However, in the pre-decimal era, "Three pounds ten" would have been understood as "Three pounds and ten shillings", the present-day equivalent being £3.50. For example, "Maggie Mae", recorded by the Beatles in 1969 but based on a much older traditional song, includes the line "Two pounds ten a week, that was my pay." See more »
An intimate, carefully crafted biopic with uniformly superb performances.
I don't usually enjoy biopics, but PRICK UP YOUR EARS is a glorious exception. Many biopics don't have strong narrative arcs (simply because people's lives generally don't), but this one does -- primarily because it focuses on the rapid deterioration of the relationship between playwright Joe Orton and failed novelist Kenneth Halliwell. With the obvious exception of the horrific conclusion, the issues faced by these two London writers will probably ring painfully true for many members of the audience. Who hasn't felt like Halliwell at some point -- or even Orton, dealing with a Halliwell-esquire partner?
This is where PRICK UP YOUR EARS succeeds while so many other biopics fail: while it does not shy away from the sensationalistic aspects of Orton's life, it never neglects the complex relationship beating at the center of the narrative. I can safely say it's one of the rare cases where I found myself relating on a human level to the biographical subjects, instead of dryly watching them from afar.
Director Stephen Frears deserves kudos for his warm, understated approach. It's almost hard to praise his directing because it's so unobtrusive; but this is exactly his strong point. He is confident in the story's inherent power, so he wisely gets out of the way and lets it unfold naturally.
And he is helped marvelously by the uniformly great performances; there simply isn't a wrong note struck by the cast. Even supporting roles, like those of Orton's sister and brother-in-law, feel like real human beings. Of course, the real standouts are Oldman, Molina and Redgrave.
Though his physical appearance isn't dramatically altered, Gary Oldman still seems unrecognizable compared to his previous work; this is how strongly he becomes Orton. His carefree swagger is by turns charming and infuriating. You understand why Halliwell is both entranced and insanely frustrated with him. He also looks a little bit like Dana Carvey - just by the by.
Molina is no less astonishing. Bald at 25, frustrated, neurotic, sexually incapable... the character is a hulking mass of awkwardness, but somehow he evokes tremendous sympathy. You alternately want to hug this guy and shake him silly. (The scene in which Orton is informed of his mother's death is heartbreaking - for both men's reactions.)
Meanwhile, Redgrave is a delight. Her line readings are exquisite and she gives the movie a crisp cleverness without crossing the line into self-indulgence.
For all the tragic and uncomfortable elements of Orton and Halliwell's relationship, the movie still features some hilarious scenes. The cheeky title, Orton and Halliwell's divergent accounts of their lifestyle together, the conversation with Brian Epstein, and Halliwell's "we were having a conversation" gave the movie a gleeful edge of naughtiness -- one the viewer suspects was strongly inspired by Orton's own approach to life and work.
In short, I highly recommend this movie. Though its description may seem sensationalistic -- a gay man brutally murders his successful young lover -- PRICK UP YOUR EARS triumphs as both a simple human drama and as a biography in which its subjects are made more intimate rather than more remote.
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