*** (A must-see)

Directed by Steven Frears

Written by Alan Bennett

With Gary Oldman, Alfred Molina, Vanessa Redgrave, and Wallace Shawn.

Joe Orton was the pet bad boy of English theater in the 60s, a one-man assault on conventional British morality. Unabashedly homosexual when that was still a crime punishable by imprisonment, Orton had a profound understanding of the politics of illicit desire. He set plays like What the Butler Saw, Entertaining Mr. Sloan, and Loot in the comfortable chintz parlors of the middle class. But into these quiet worlds he’d introduce seductive people and objects that quickly reduced them to havoc. Orton had much the same effect himself, upsetting a staid theater defined by classics on the one hand and social drama on the other. But his brand of naughty hedonism, as iconoclastic as it may have been, was welcomed by a theatrical community longing to be titillated. Orton’s plays were not simply grab bags of wickedness, but sophisticated psychological minuets adorned with ferociously clever dialogue. Witty and even farcical, they gained force from their dark undercurrents.

There were swirling waters in Orton’s life as well as in his art, and in 1967, when the 34-year-old playwright was just reaching the height of his celebrity (he’d been commissioned to write a screenplay for the Beatles), he was bludgeoned to death by his longtime lover, Ken Halliwell, who also killed himself. Orton, toward the end, was like one of his own victim characters: obsessed with position and under the delusion that he was in complete control of those around him. And his death was like a moment from one of his plays: temporarily blinded by thoughts of convention, he didn’t see the consequences of his managed love life sneaking up behind him.

Orton and Halliwell met at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Halliwell, middle- or upper-middle-class himself, took the vulgar, lower-middle-class youth from Leicester and introduced him to the world of English culture. An aspiring writer, Halliwell over the next 13 years witnessed the fizzling out of his own ambitions as he came face to face with his own lack of talent. Meanwhile Orton’s abilities ripened, and as the former protege’s success grew, his need or love for his former lover and teacher withered, and, though he had been constantly and determinedly promiscuous all through the relationship, he started throwing his infidelities in Halliwell’s face, denying him sexually, and trying to drive him away. All he succeeded in doing was creating a hell that lasted for years before Halliwell finally brought everything to a catastrophic end.

John Lahr’s biography of Orton, Prick Up Your Ears, was a truly critical biography, attempting to measure Orton’s worth as a playwright (Lahr gave him very high marks) and as a human being (rather lower marks). Lahr’s work is almost obsessive in its need to weigh the value of everything in the two men’s lives (two men because a life of Orton was necessarily a life of Halliwell), even going so far as to offer a measured judgment of the cutout collages that Halliwell decorated their apartment with and–in a humiliating attempt to establish his own personality as an artist–exhibited for sale. (Lahr thought they were actually rather good.)

Through the cooperation of Orton’s agent, Lahr had access to Orton’s private diary, a scabrous collection of sexual anecdotes dating back to adolescence, mingled with cruel descriptions of friends, acquaintances, and colleagues. With that, plus his own indefatigable interviews with relatives and friends of both men, he was able to offer a nearly complete picture of two strange men living in a strange time.

Nearly complete because Lahr wasn’t actually present for any of the intimate moments, or even the public or semipublic ones. Using the evidence of the diary and witnesses, Lahr was able to reconstruct some of these experiences, but, as a conscientious biographer, backed off too frequently to be satisfying.

To reconstruct private lives when documentation gives out is an act of imagination, and that is what the film Prick Up Your Ears is all about. Playwright Alan Bennett, obviously a careful reader of Orton’s plays and diary (now published) and Lahr’s biography, has filled out those moments of private and public intercourse that Lahr could only write around. For example, while Lahr could only assume that Halliwell impressed his young fellow RADA student with his cultural sophistication, Bennett has written a sequence that shows the ambitious, self-conscious lad at first amused, then intrigued, and finally dazzled by the oversized pretender striving so hard to impress him. Bennett is also a true descendant of Orton, capping Halliwell’s pursuit with a stroll along the Thames embankment as the two boys gaze giddily at a fireworks display, just the kind of ordinary pleasure that Orton liked to satirize. And, typically, Bennett goes even further when, as the two lie together in a postcoital embrace, Orton warns that Halliwell risks prison while he does not because, as the saucy tease sneers, he’s “the innocent party.”

Bennett wraps Orton’s life landmarks in a flashback structure, and one that really is demanded by the nature of the subject. Though his fame may have faded in the United States (notwithstanding a successful revival of Loot on Broadway last year), Orton is still notorious in Britain, and the murder/suicide has to be dispensed with in the opening minutes just to satisfy the audience’s expectations. In order to avoid a rigid cause-and-effect setup (where every action in the flashback is reduced to a mere foreshadowing of the grim climax), Bennett has actually introduced John Lahr as a character (played by Wallace Shawn). Lahr rummages through Orton’s past, freeing Bennett to explore the class tensions that so galled the budding writer and, through encounters with Orton’s agent, Peggy Ramsay (a tour de force performance by Vanessa Redgrave), the effect of the zeitgeist on Orton and his work. Things do falter a bit when Lahr’s marriage is made to serve as a too obvious parallel to the Lahr/Halliwell liaison, but those are relatively brief regrets.

For all the voices at work in the film–Orton’s, Lahr’s, and Bennett’s–it is remarkable that that of the director Stephen Frears is sounded so clearly and strongly. But this story of a treacherous, tenuous love–whether familial or romantic–tossed about by social or artistic circumstance, plays right to the strong suit of the director of My Beautiful Laundrette and Gumshoe. Frears is certainly the preeminent realist in British cinema right now. It may not always be obvious, especially given the conscientious attention he pays to the romantic fancies of his characters, but realism of a not-so-modern sort is always there in the arrangement of scenes, in the setup of the shots. Typically, Frears will shoot a scene in steady long shot, his principals in a middle ground surrounded by a lively context. His rhythms are eccentric; he often continues beyond–or even stops short of–the “correct” moment for a mini-climax. These seemingly small flourishes give his films a quiet, dramatic wholeness. Their naturalness sneaks up on you, until the style almost melts away before the cares and caresses of their characters.

It’s no surprise that a sympathetic evenhandedness toward the characters emerges naturally from this sort of visual style. But Frears’s sympathy isn’t just an automatic search for the good side of his characters. He isn’t interested in how good people can be in spite of their bad qualities; he is more interested in how bound up with others they can get, and therefore, how much a part of others we all must be. Without ever surrendering their personal autonomy, people in Frears’s films always have problems that leap easily to the universal. So when Peggy Ramsay recounts to Lahr how much like a spurned and hurt wife Halliwell was made to feel, she’s only nailing down what Frears has already quietly demonstrated with long takes that capture the tiniest glimmers of hurt, pleasure, or reaction.

This kind of filmmaking requires extremely talented performers, and as usual, Frears has them. As Orton, Gary Oldman (from Sid & Nancy) binds his charm in a gradually infuriating cleverness. Except for the fact that he’s being held emotional hostage, you almost feel he deserves what he’s going to get. Just as Orton is naturally likable, the pretentious, foolish Halliwell should be instantly dislikable, and Alfred Molina, treading carefully this side of bathos, manages to make his overemotional bore seem bearable, even attractive in his way.

Frears doesn’t pull off the kind of success he had in My Beautiful Laundrette. No doubt, this is due in part to the open-ended structure of the earlier film, necessarily lacking in a story based on a true occurrence. There’s also a slightly nastier tone here. Frears is usually resolutely downbeat about the inevitable treacheries of close relationships, and he’s never before allowed himself the clear-cut sort of ending Orton’s story has stuck him with. Orton himself, though he would probably have appreciated the idea of his drowning in libidinous quicksand, would no doubt have disapproved of murder as too melodramatic a conclusion. Likewise, Frears might say that life doesn’t usually hold out solutions as neat as death. Even Bennett’s script can’t take the finality all that seriously, and the closing scenes of Orton’s death are played out like one of his own plays. As the landlady argues with a visiting chauffeur and her husband on whether to knock down the door to get to the bodies glimpsed inside, the dialogue flies fast and furious. There’s the implication that Orton’s work will survive his death, but stated more boldly is the proposition that this end is more ridiculous than tragic or sad. After all, what was it all about? A love affair between a repressed man and a writer who warned everyone else about such things. Sometimes life admits to ironies far cheaper and easier than any art can afford.