Prick Up Your Ears

September 30, 2020

The facts of Joe Orton’s life are short but hardly sweet: a rough English working-class background, years of sexual promiscuity, sudden fame as a playwright, and violent death in 1967 at the hands of his longtime lover, Kenneth Halliwell, at the age of 34.

This provocative life has spawned a film, Prick Up Your Ears, that is entirely entertaining, cutting, and irreverent. Orton’s death may be a tragic and awful fact; but the film’s explication of the steps leading to it has the kind of biting wit that the writer himself might have savored.

The film is based on John Lahr’s biography, and Lahr is also a character in the film (played by Wallace Shawn) who leads us into a recounting of Orton’s life. Screenwriter Alan Bennett, one of Britain’s best, has structured the movie as a series of building blocks that are piled in non-chronological order, so that we skip around throughout Orton’s life.

This produces a portrait along the lines of the clipped ­photo collages that the frustrated actor/writer/artist Halliwell pastes all over the walls of the flat the two men share. The film draws their touchy friendship carefully: At first Orton is student to the smart, worldly Halliwell, but at the end, Orton is the rich and famous one who won’t take Halliwell to an important awards ceremony (Loot was named best play of 1966).

The director, Stephen Frears (My Beautiful Laundrette), finds the universality in this. The movie is at least partly about what happens to a relationship when one partner abruptly pulls ahead of the other; thus Halliwell suddenly becomes the long-suffering, unfulfilled wife.

Frears directs with complete confidence; the movie jumps and glides from one sharply realized situation to another. He’s superb at fashioning individual scenes, such as the one in which a spat between the boys is interrupted by a phone call from Paul McCartney (Orton wrote a never-produced script that was to be a movie for The Beatles), which produces much dithering in preparation for an imminent visit from the mop-top.

And Frears knows how to let dialogue gather subtle meanings. Orton’s awards speech includes the rakish line, “I’ve got away with it so far,” which may produce shiver in the audience; we already know he’ll be dead within a few months.

Vanessa Redgrave plays Orton’s agent and Julie Walters contributes a zany cameo as Orton’s unlamented mother. But the film rests with the two excellent performances of Gary Oldman as Orton and Alfred Molina as Halliwell.

Molina, who previously appeared as the bearlike Russian in Letter to Brezhnev, is adept at suggesting the hurt beneath Halliwell’s sardonicism. In fact, it’s a much more sympathetic role than Orton, who remains a cool figure.

Oldman brilliantly captures the sense of Orton as an amoralist who always seems detached, even during his own experiences. It’s the opposite of Oldman’s performance as Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy where he was an entirely reactive animal with little self-awareness. Oldman – the kind of actor whose face you have trouble remembering after you’ve left the theater – has an interesting career in front of him. Even if he keeps playing real-life characters who get killed off in the last reel.

First published in The Herald, June 14, 1987

Good movie, another notch in Oldman’s belt as brilliant-young-next-Olivier. Would like to read that Beatles script sometime – surely it’s out there.

The Bostonians

December 11, 2019

bostoniansFor cinematic adapters, the novels of Henry James are among the toughest nuts to crack. The long­time moviemaking team of Merchant-Ivory (consisting of director James Ivory, screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and producer Ismail Merchant) apparently wants to keep trying.

They made a version of The Europeans, with Lee Remick and Lisa Eichhorn, a few years ago. That film disppeared quickly, but they’re at it again, this time with a cast guaranteed to provide a higher profile.

The Bostonians stars Christopher Reeve and Vanessa Redgrave in James’ tale of the struggles of suffragettes in New England in the 1870s. Redgrave is an intense suffrage leader; Reeve is her distant cousin, a lawyer from Mississippi whose views on men and women are only a few hundred years behind the times.

Between them comes Verena (Madeleine Potter), a girl with a mesmerizing stage presence, who makes speeches on the women’s movement. Redgrave takes her in and grooms her to be the figurehead of the suffrage movement. Reeve simply falls in love with her, and pursues her in a gentlemanly fashion during the next couple of years. He offers her a choice: the cause or marriage. Not both.

Without the visual equivalent of James’ elegant, biting prose, that question can get pretty thin when stretched over two hours – and it does. The Bostonians is a stately, stuffy, respectful adaptation; Ivory and company have basically transcribed a number of scenes from the book and filmed them. They certainly haven’t found a fresh, purely cinematic approach. Perhaps its most glaring fault is the absence of Jamesian wit.

If the film as a whole strikes me as a misfire, I still found much of it engrossing. The locations and the actors are watchable enough. Reeve, for the first time outside Superman, is actually pretty good – the Southern accent is unfaltering, and he physically embodies the kind of traditional backward-looking gentleman of the times. Redgrave has less to do, in part because the film has shifted the emphasis toward Reeve’s character.

Wallace Shawn hustles through as a conniving reporter who would like to harness Verena’s gift as a moneymaking commodity; Nancy Marchand does a clever turn as the matriarch of a family whose son is smitten with Verena; and Linda Hunt (the tiny actress who won an Academy Award last year for The Year of Living Dangerously) is a superb choice to play an independent-minded doctor who regards both the suffragettes and Reeve with equal amusement.

One quibble: Newcomer Madeleine Potter seems slightly miscast as Verena. She gives a good performance, but there is something soft about her – an unconvincing element when she is meant to be a riveting and inspirational speaker. Verena’s talent never quite gets across the screen, and Reeve’s enchantment with her is thus a bit puzzling.

First published in the Herald, October 1984

The Merchant Ivory team would make another James adaptation, The Golden Bowl, which was the stiffest of the bunch. This review is fairly humdrum but I think I’m right about the movie; still, I’d give it another look after all these years. This came during the period when Reeve was deliberately steering as far away as possible from Superman, an admirable instinct that helped ground his career after a few years.


April 25, 2012

In a small town in a bucolic patch of Yorkshire countryside, a group of friends is enjoying a dinner party. The only note of strangeness in the convivial, civilized dinner is the moodiness of one young man, who seems taken with his own thoughts.

The next day, the young man returns to the house and greets the owner. He reveals that he had not been invited by her friends to the dinner party—as she had assumed, since she had never seen him before; in fact, he knew no one there and simply bluffed his way into the house. While she is pondering the absurdity of this situation, he pulls a revolver out of his pocket, puts the barrel in his mouth, and pulls the trigger.

These are among the opening scenes of Wetherby, and the film will proceed with a complex examination of how this apparently inexplicable act came to pass. You’ve got to admit, it’s a grabby and intriguing idea; but writer-director David Hare has much more on his mind than some kind of murder mystery.

He’s after bigger fish. As with his play and movie Plenty, Hare’s concerns include the nervous spaces between people and (his favorite theme) the emotional paralysis of English people under the weight of too much civilization. Luckily for Hare, he seems to have a sense of how to make movies (this is his first directed feature), otherwise his tackling of these big issues and themes could have been clunky and awkward.

Even so, he has a tendency toward obviousness in some of his dialogue, as though the audience couldn’t catch what he was getting at otherwise.

But I list these cavils in order to better praise Wetherby, which strikes me as one of the most original films of the year. If everything in the film doesn’t go as smoothly as it might have, it’s nevertheless a scintillating experience.

Hare traces the events surrounding the suicide by going back and forth in time—from the arrival of the young stranger (Tim McInnerny), to the dinner party again, to the present, in which the schoolteacher (Vanessa Redgrave) in whose house he killed himself is trying to sort out the mystery. She is visited by a listless girl (Suzanna Hamilton) who knew the stranger at school, and by a police detective (Stuart Wilson) whose own life is not going so well.

There are also flashbacks to Redgrave’s 20-years-past love affair, which becomes more relevant as the film progresses (she is played in the flashbacks by Joely Richardson, the real-life daughter of Vanessa Redgrave). This failed romance has haunted the character ever since, and given her a common bond with the mysterious stranger: loneliness.

Hare draws all this with a delicate brush, and the film is as good to look at as it is to think about. Vanessa Redgrave is superb; she doesn’t hit a wrong note in the entire performance. Ian Holm, as usual, gives fine support, and Wilson is subtle in the unexpectedly touching role of the police officer.

The most disquieting performance is given by Tim McInnerny, in his first film role. His character, the suicide, is described as having “a blankness—a disfiguring blankness” that sums up his place in the world. McInnerny gives this character, through his acting abilities and through his unusual looks, a disturbing normalcy that sets the eerie tone for the rest of the movie.

First published in the Herald, October 22, 1985

An opening sequence that certainly puts its hooks into you. Hare keeps his hand in with movies, and directed that unsettling adaptation of The Designated Mourner.