Prick Up Your Ears


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Prick Up Your Ears
"A powerful, hard-hitting drama which simultaneously manages to be one of the funniest films of its era."

Directed by the young Stephen Frears from a script by Alan Bennett, with a stellar cast, Prick Up Your Ears has long been regarded as a classic of its kind. This freshly restored edition from Park Circus Pictures brings life back to the old print and restores some of the edge which it had in the Eighties. Though the world has changed a great deal since then, and it no longer shocks the way it used to, this is a chance to recapture something of the way it was meant to be seen.

Prick Up Your Ears is a strange animal - far too eccentric to appeal to many of those who normally enjoy biography, yet insufficiently well known, because of that label, amongst the people who would enjoy it most. Based on John Lahr's evocative book, it includes Lahr himself as a character and frames itself within the story of his writing, so we know from the start what will happen at the end and we have a raised awareness of all those involved as characters in a drama, real though they were. This would seem to fit in rather well with the way brash young playwright Joe Orton saw his own life.

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As with all great dramatic tragedies, its potency comes not from the horror of its ending but from the inevitability of that ending. Joe's inability to fully perceive the emotional disintegration of his partner Kenneth Halliwell, together with the accidental cruelty of the egotism which made Halliwell fall for him in the first place, propels the pair on a spiral toward destruction which none of their essential good-naturedness or affection for each other can stop. The result is a powerful, hard-hitting drama which simultaneously manages to be one of the funniest films of its era.

Bennett's script draws heavily on Orton's diaries, themselves packed with Halliwell quotes (which he often stole for his plays), delivering one witty line after another without ever losing track of the human story. Sympathetic but incisive, it amply invokes the talents of two keenly intelligent men locked in a co-dependent relationship whose problems are only exacerbated by Orton's increasing fame.

As Orton, Gary Oldman strikes just the right balance of self-centered pomposity, happy-go-lucky charm and quiet despair - the young rebel who shows his suburban roots in his determination to stay with Halliwell and somehow make things work. But it is Alfred Molina as Halliwell, crumbling under the weight of his passions, his awareness of his own talent and the frustration of continual failure, who steals the show. Anyone who has ever played the dutiful housewife to a more successful partner will recognise his pain, disproportionate though it is rendered by depression, and his genius is in making viewers love him despite all his impossible behaviour. Balanced against these two, we have Vanessa Redgrave on superb form as Peggy, Orton's devoted agent and best friend, the only one left to tell the tale.

Fans of Orton's work will not be disappointed by this film, which has plenty of insalubrious sex and cheerful vulgarity, though nothing so explicit as to justify the 18 certificate it was given on its original release. For the younger generation, it provides a fascinating glimpse into the life which many gay men lived when consenting acts between them were still illegal. Orton's defiant and continually optimistic attitude does nothing to reduce the impact of the prejudice on display, though it certainly enlivens the film and rescues it from the grimness which has overtaken many others trying to examine these issues. Orton's world, as presented here, is more like Genet's, where sex is never hard to find and secrecy only makes it more fun. The energy of these scenes serves in turn to make the tragedy of the tale more potent.

This new version of Prick Up Your Ears is a great improvement on what you may have seen on your television screen, strengthening the film's visual impact and making it easier to follow scenes in darkened basements, everything beset by the murky English weather. It's a rare chance to catch one of the best of British films at the cinema, and you'd be mad to miss it.

Reviewed on: 04 Apr 2007
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The wayward life and violent death of provocative playwright Joe Orton.
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Director: Stephen Frears

Writer: Alan Bennett, based on the biography by John Lahr

Starring: Gary Oldman, Alfred Molina, Vanessa Redgrave, Frances Barber, Janet Dale, Julie Walters

Year: 1987

Runtime: 110 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK


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