The timing of the re-release of this film chimes in well with the 50th anniversary of the death of Joe Orton in 1967. It is also interesting to consider that this film was made in 1987 when the climate for homosexuals was very different from today’s. The movie, depicting as it did the lives of two gay men, contained scenes that were considered shocking at the time.
The film is based upon the biography by John Lahr with the screenplay written by Alan Bennett. It charts the relationship between Joe Orton (Gary Oldman) and Kenneth Halliwell (Alfred Molina) from their first meeting at RADA until Halliwell battered Orton to death and then committed suicide with an overdose. It is topped and tailed by the discovery of Joe’s body and the end deaths of the two lovers.
At first Joe is the uneducated lad who is pleased to receive help and encouragement from the older Kenneth. Halliwell goes through everything Joe writes, correcting as he goes along. Halliwell doesn’t really write anything of significance of his own. But as Orton gains in confidence, he finds he doesn’t need Halliwell to vet his writing any more. As Joe continues his cottaging (picking up men for sex in public toilets), Kenneth is unhappy about this too. Halliwell becomes depressed and increasingly jealous of his lover leading to the final destructive act in August 1967.
Vanessa Redgrave as Peggy Ramsay, Orton’s literary agent, gives a tremendous performance as she recognizes Joe’s talent and fosters it. There are good cameo appearances from Julie Waters as Joe’s mother Elsie Orton, Frances Barber as his sister Leonie Orton and Wallace Shawn as John Lahr.
Alfred Molina doesn’t overdo the character defects of Orton’s gay lover, Halliwell, while Gary Oldman is just perfect in the role of the vulnerable yet boastful Orton.
Too short a life.