1 Hr., 50 Mins.
Prick Up Your Ears
September 30, 2020
tephen Frears’ Prick Up Your Ears (1987) has the problem common among the majority of biopics — a tendency to prioritize narrative over a strong sense of character. The movie is about English playwright Joe Orton and his lover, writer/collagist Kenneth Halliwell, who, infamously, had a long-term relationship ultimately destroyed by volatility and one-sided envy. It ended in 1967 when, in a fit of rage,
Halliwell bludgeoned Orton to death and then killed himself. The short story is that Halliwell, struggling with his mental health and his own acceptance of his sexuality (when he and Orton were together, it was illegal in their native England to be a sexually active gay man), was further incensed by the way Orton’s star as a playwright was rising while his own as a writer and artist was steadily declining. In the movie, Orton and Halliwell are played by Gary Oldman and Alfred Molina; the film mostly develops in flashback, with the framing device being that husband-wife writer duo John and Anthea Lahr (Wallace Shawn and Lindsay Duncan) are working on a biography about Orton.
Prick Up Your Ears has been made competently, and screenwriter Alan Bennett, adapting the real-life Lahr biography of Orton, convincingly brings to life the escalating claustrophobia and turbulence defining the relationship at the movie’s center. In no doubt aggravated by how Orton and Halliwell lived together in a tiny apartment covered almost floor to ceiling in the latter’s collages, much of it can be summarized by one of the lines furiously let out by Molina toward the end of the film, speaking to a half-awake Oldman: “I was programmed to be a novelist or a playwright. But I'm not, and you are. Joe, you do everything better than me — you even sleep better than me!” But while Prick Up Your Ears soundly portrays the struggles and triumphs endured by its leads, we leave it without much of a new grasp of the mutual ardor at the root of Orton and Halliwell’s relationship.
We get how it evolved (at first, the older Halliwell served as something of a mentor when they met in college, and then the closeness tightened) and how tempestuousness could be inflamed by time. But we finish the movie without much of a sense of why these men, bad as they were for each other in the long run, were so passionate for one another. Oldman and Molina, though individually good, don’t have any chemistry. Orton and Halliwell were together for 15 years, but when Oldman and Molina are in the same room, there is little to suggest something lived-in, aside from Molina’s persuasive portrayal of long-accruing dissatisfaction that his Halliwell never attempts to conceal.
We don’t glean any sense of Orton’s artistry, either; we can feel little of his excitement for his craft and the other creative avenues he attempted to go down, other than him being predisposed to these interests. (Before they pivoted to writing, Orton and Halliwell both were actors.) One might assume that an unacquainted viewer who has just finished up the movie could tell you what Orton’s plays were about, what they were like. But either thing is only passingly brought to the fore, so if you didn’t know before starting the feature, you’re likely to be quick to forget what you’ve been told.
Prick Up Your Ears is perfunctory — proficient in its storytelling without triggering much of an emotional pull. The one thing that feels alive in the movie is Vanessa Redgrave, who plays Orton’s agent Peggy. Ultra glamorous and drily witty (her mouth is often slightly agape, glibly curved — she has a charming crocodile smile), her performance has a shimmer to it. It feels so awake compared to an ensemble sufficiently but not exceptionally portraying real-life people; you miss Redgrave when she’s gone, even if her character is allotted a healthy amount of screen time. That a particularly animated supporting player in a biopic easily eclipses the indisputably fascinating subjects speaks to the quality of the movie: the kind of “pretty good” that makes any glimmer of genuine greatness within it blinding, out of place, rather than harmonious with everything else — an unintentional spotlight. Redgrave makes us wish this pretty good movie was as great as she is. B-