"Prick Up Your Ears", Stephen Frears' dramatisation of the Joe Orton murder case, drops us right into the thick of something, evoking from the get-go a thoroughly odd, if not entirely queer couple, trapped together in an Islington flat. Here is Orton's lover Kenneth Halliwell (Alfred Molina), a self-loathing middle-aged neatfreak - fair obsessed with dusting - whose life has been inclined towards tragedy ever since his mother dropped dead after being stung by a wasp over breakfast, and his father stuck his head in the gas oven. Gary Oldman's Orton, by contrast, is the up-and-coming provocateur of stage and urinal alike, unable to take a damn thing seriously, apt to flirt with the undertakers at his own mother's funeral. Flashbacks reveal how the two met as struggling actors at RADA, then - even within the confined space of their dank and dingy bedsit - started drifting apart, as Orton found the notoriety he always wanted through such West End hits as Entertaining Mr. Sloane and Loot, handing Halliwell only further miseries and insecurities with which to feed his underlying depression.
Although Frears directs with his usual restraint, keeping himself out of the way of two outstanding central turns, this is a very cleverly constructed film. Alan Bennett's screenplay is at least as interested in charting the repercussions this affair had on those in the present-day - Wallace Shawn making for a most personable framing device as Orton's biographer John Lahr - and is shot through with uniquely phrased fascinations. (On the gentrification of Islington, one character observes: "They turned the greengrocer's into an antiques shop, and the pub does salad." Plus ça change.) Bennett crafts a string of idiosyncratic set-pieces - Orton and Halliwell cruising public parks at a time when homosexuality was a criminal offence, the investigation by a nosy librarian that landed both parties in prison for leaving obscene graffiti on their books - but Frears knows when to hone in on cherishable moments in the performances: Molina-as-Halliwell knocking on the door of the conquest he's followed home and making small talk with a Moroccan rent boy ("So your sister's husband works in Epsom?"), and even at the last reprimanding himself for not using a more appropriately theatrical weapon to stove his lover's head in. Against him, Oldman brings a twisted sweetness to the sequence where Orton uses his first advance to pay for a wig and a john for Halliwell, but there's something tellingly cruel in the way he corrects his lover in the writing of a piss-taking letter to an officious adversary.
The look is never less than authentic in its seediness, forever leading us by the hand into the shadows that lay beyond the banners and bunting of the Festival of Britain, and thereby giving us cause to wonder what happened when the Sixties swung the other way. Frears recently won acclaim for his The Queen, but it's only with this re-release that I realised what his directorial project has been all along: to quietly stitch together an alternative or underground history of the nation, depicting what was going on behind the scenes or - as in a strange homoerotic ballet staged here in a subterranean WC - beneath our feet. Just as Frears' subsequent Dangerous Liaisons was a period piece that sought the last word on the greed and excess of the 1980s, "Prick Up Your Ears" now seems to unspool as a requiem composed in the AIDS decade: a reminder of how far the gay community had moved on, and how far it still had to travel for acceptance at the time of production, entirely sympathetic to its outsider heroes' lifestyle choices, even as it ruefully depicts how they came to destroy them both. Two decades down the line from its original release, the film also holds up as a repository for notable British character actors, of a kind Orton would surely have appreciated: alongside the frankly inspired casting of Frances Barber as Julie Walters' daughter, look sharp for Eric Richard, a.k.a. Bob Cryer from The Bill [and now Dunkirk!], as a talent scout, and Richard Wilson as a prison psychiatrist.
"Prick Up Your Ears" returns to selected cinemas from Friday.