Orlando (1992)


(director/writer: Sally Potter; screenwriter: based on the novel by Virginia Woolf; cinematographer: Aleksei Rodionov; editor: Herve Schneid; music: ; cast: Tilda Swinton (Orlando), Billy Zane (Shelmerdine), John Wood (Archduke Harry), Lothaire Bluteau (The Khan), Charlotte Valandrey (Sasha), Heathcote Williams (Nick Greene/ Publisher), Quentin Crisp (Queen Elizabeth I), Peter Eyre (Alexander Pope), Thom Hoffman (William Of Orange), Dudley Sutton (King James I); Runtime: 93; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producer: Christopher Sheppard; Sony Picture Classics; 1992-UK/Russia/Italy/France/Netherlands-in English)
I would imagine such a bizarre film would appeal mainly to those with a discriminating taste.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Writer-director Sally Potter (“The Gold Diggers”/”The Tango Lesson”/”Yes”) bases the fantasy costume pic on the 1928 novel by Virginia Woolf. The novel served as a love letter to Woolf’s bisexual aristocrat lover Victoria Sackville-West. The writer lover, Victoria, was the model for the androgynous Lord Orlando, a time traveling adventurer. On her part, Potter keeps the film as a love letter to Woolf and England, and scrumptiously served it up as an offbeat curio reflecting on 400 years of English history from the 17th to the 20th century. It’s seen through the eyes of an ageless man named Orlando (Tilda Swinton), who changes into a woman at the film’s midpoint and speaks into the camera: “Same person, no difference at all. Just a different sex.” The rich visual film was stunningly shot in Uzbekistan by Aleksei Rodionov. I would imagine such a bizarre film would appeal mainly to those with a discriminating taste.

Young nobleman Orlando (Tilda Swinton) in 1600 is favored by the elderly Queen Elizabeth I (Quentin Crisp) and she has him around as a boy toy. The Queen commands him: “Do not fade, do not wither, do not grow old.” As a reward for his service, the Queen gives him the deed to his vast and opulent ancestral home.

Potter keeps things hopping along in 50-year jumps. This takes us through the Civil War; the early colonial period; a time when Orlando becomes the English ambassador to Constantinople and is so revolted by war that he has a sex change; Orlando returns to England as a woman poetess and hangs around the effete literary salons of 1750 with know-it-all snobs and male chauvinists Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope and Joseph Addison; during the Victorian era, Orlando is faced with the possible loss of her property because she’s a woman but recovers to have a child with an American adventurer (Billy Zane); and finally a 20th century postscript is tacked on by Potter, that has Orlando giving birth and as a literary modern woman no longer trapped by destiny but able to fully express herself.

The stylized performances don’t always work, but overall this is a sly period film that has a few witty things to say about English history, feminism and class. Potter seems to be having fun with this spoof and there are many wry inoffensive underhanded jokes.

Tilda Swinton’s superb performance fully captures Woolf’s belief of a real self that lies beyond gender, which is the underlying theme of this venture.