Prick Up Your Ears

| October 6, 2015

Prick Up Your Ears is a film that should not have been left in relative obscurity and yet for some god forsaken reason, it has. Directed by Stephen Frears and starring the likes of Gary Oldman and Alfred Molina, one would think that a film with such prestigious talent behind it would be recalled and uttered by the mouths of many and yet this 1987 masterpiece has gone by relatively unnoticed. I’m not sure whether I live in a cave or not, but to think that this biopic of Joe Orton and his lover and mentor, Kenneth Halliwell would be referenced as best of the 80’s or some other form of listing would be on my radar and yet sadly, it has not. Luckily for myself and the wonderful viewing public, Olive Films has managed to rescue this incredible, yet sad tale for people to witness and discover for the first time.

The film is a biography of Joe Orton (Gary Oldman), a British playwright, who managed to strike fame with his plays “Entertaining Mr. Sloane” and “Loot” in the 1960’s. In the midst of trying to write a screenplay for the Beatles, his life is was cut short by his jealous lover, Kenneth Halliwell (Alfred Molina). Through this biopic, we follow writer John Lahr (Wallace Shawn) and his wife Anthea (Lindsay Duncan) as they interview various people to find out about Joe’s history in order to properly write his biography. As they interview a variety of people, including Joe’s sister Leonie (Frances Barber) and his agent Peggy Ramsay (Vanessa Redgrave), Lahr and his wife uncover the complexities and mystery behind his life and untimely death at the hands of Mr. Halliwell.

Director Stephen Frears has the uncanny ability to guide his actors and have their performances give life to the story at hand. Everything from Dangerous Liasons to The Grifters, Frears exhibits himself as an actor’s director and Prick Up Your Ears is no exception to this. Oldman and Molina give astounding performances as Orton and Halliwell, to the point where they’re unrecognizable. There’s a considerable amount of change in Oldman’s performance as Orton, both before and after he meets Molina’s character. Seeing this metamorphosis unfold is a testament to Oldman’s dedication to the craft and showcases why he’s had a career as long as he’s had. Mirroring this performance is Molina as Halliwell, who also demonstrates major changes, not through Orton’s direct actions, but through Orton’s growing sexual prowess and career trajectory. While extremely brief, the supporting cast of Duncan, Shawn and Redgrave also give the film much to offer, as well as an access point into both of these men’s lives.

Another astounding feat of this film, is how Frears uses the narrative of Orton, to offer a glimpse of the homosexual lifestyle in the 1960’s. With Halliwell liberating Orton’s sexual orientation, we’re given a glimpse into what life was like for these men and the means they had to take in order to fulfill their sexual desires. Through brilliant use of staging and lighting, Frears along with his cinematographer Oliver Stapleton portray the secrecy and difficulty of being a gay male at that time. Whether its going to a discrete public lavatory or tailing someone in a subway, being a queer in the era is a matter of being discreet and private.

I’m extremely happy that Olive Films has managed to release a film as Prick Up Your Ears on Blu-Ray. Not only does it stand out due to its performances, but it stands out as a centerpiece in queer cinema and British cinema as a whole. Highly Recommended! 

About the Author:

is a graduate from Columbia College Chicago with a degree in Audio for Visual Media. He works as a freelance location sound mixer, boom operator, sound designer, and writer in his native Chicago. He's an avid collector of films, comics, and anime.
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