Monday, November 29, 2010

Review: Prick Up your Ears

     Or your rears. Pretty funny innit? It's a title that doesn't really have anything to do with the movie itself, but it still manages to describe it quite well; Prick up your Ears is full of cheeky British humor and has enough pricks going up rears to make Gus Van Sant blush.
     The movie opens with the discovery of playright Joe Orton's body in his London flat. It then uses interviews between writer John Lahr (Wallace Shawn) and Orton's secretary (a very sharp Vannessa Redgrave) to frame the story of Orton's rise to fame and his difficult relationship with boyfriend Kenneth Halliwell. We have to wait until later in the movie to uncover what actually happened to Orton, but none of this will be new territory for who knows the actual story of Orton's death in 1967 (told in the book version of Prick up your Ears by John Lahr.)
     It's good then that the story is not built on suspense, but on wit, strong performances, and comedy so black that it becomes tragedy. The interplay between Orton and Halliwell is key; their's is an imbalanced relationship, but even if Orton leaves Halliwell emotionally devastated, they are too close after 16 years together to separate. Gary Oldman is excellent as the charismatic Orton. He's highly intelligent, but behind all his affable cleverness, he's calculating and even malicious. And Alfred Molina is even better as the vulnerable Halliwell, who taught the young Orton everything he knew about art and literature, but now has to live in the shadow of his fame.
    Behind the cameras, we have the always reliable Stephen Frears, a true master of the british comedy and a master of the adaptation. Frears claims he's not an auteur--and this is true by definition--but he sure chooses good scripts; here the praise goes to screenwriter Alan Bennet. What makes the humor in movies like Ears special is that nothing is just played for laughs, but everything from a funeral to a fake wig can become hilarious. Also, the timeless British tradition of the "wank" is given the significance that it deserves.
    All in all, a very smart movie. I'm not sure if it makes us think better of Joe Orton, who rallied against a prude and restrictive British society that he felt was rotten on the inside, but who might have benefited from some restraint. Joe certainly lived the life he wanted to, but nothing is more telling about his fate then the speech he gave as he accepted the best play of the year award from the Evening Standard; "My plays are about getting away with it, and the ones who get away with it are the guilty ones [...] I've gotten away with it so far. And I'm going to go on." Clearly, he didn't get away with it after a certain point.


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