In 1967, the newly-celebrated British playwright Joe Orton (Gary Oldman) was murdered by his older lover Kenneth Halliwell (Alfred Molina) in the Islington flat they shared. Around ten years later, the American writer John Lahr (Wallace Shawn) decided to write a biography of him, and approached Orton's good friend and agent Peggy Ramsay (Vanessa Redgrave) for access to his diaries, but the first time they met she hid them. She did relent, however, and allowed Lahr to base his book on them, a story of success and failure, of pushing back boundaries but still finding there were obstacles more personal...
Gary Oldman followed up his breakthrough role as Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy with this portrait of another British cult figure, although this one was far more talented. With an adaptation by Alan Bennett, there was plenty of both writers' famed wit for him to get his teeth into, but in spite of some excellent lines, the overall effect was a curiously drab one, as if the world it depicted had failed to escape the austerity and repression of the nineteen-fifties that Orton had emerged from determined to shake things up as far as the status quo went.
As seen here, Orton's homosexuality was an act of rebellion in itself, and his practising of it was at a time where you could be arrested and even imprisoned for carrying out the desires of such a sexual preference. For some reason, though, here we never get any sense of Orton the writer, as there is hardly any of his work shown here, just the odd snatch really before the drama returns to waspishness and soul-sapping frustration. It might have helped if we could have seen at least part of the showbiz world that Orton found himself welcomed into.
Especially as this was what spurred Halliwell to kill him with a hammer as he slept one night, when the humiliation of wanting to control a partner who was running away from him professionally became too much to bear. There are hints that Orton owed much of his inspiration to him, something which Halliwell never missed an opportunity to point out to anyone who would listen, but the film makes it clear that Orton's renown was wholly deserved whatever the truth behind it. Yet aside from the two stars, there are no depictions of the famous they must have met here, so for example, no Kenneth Williams and no Paul McCartney when he comes round to discuss a Beatles film script with Joe.
What you do get is a keenly sketched world of homosexuality as it was during the late fifties and most of the sixties, with what appears to be men lining up for Orton to seduce, usually after picking them up in a park or a public convenience - it's certainly convenient for Joe. The framing story, which sees the mixed feelings Orton still evoked in the present, is perhaps something we could have done without as it feels like a distraction, but the tragic relationship at the heart of the piece is superbly carried by both Oldman and Molina, and makes you forgive the deficiencies. While Oldman's Orton is witty, charismatic and slightly smug, Molina's Halliwell is a doughy, desperate and fatally unhappy man trapped in his companion's shadow. These two are well worth watching, but a bigger budget might have helped Prick Up Your Ears; as it is there's little excitement in what for Orton's era was daring taboo-breaking.