Thursday, June 17, 2010


We know from the off that things are going to be a little, ahem, unusual. A young man in doublet and hose reads beneath a tree whilst his (female) voiceover describes himself. He turns to the camera to confirm “that’s me”, as if to clear up any doubts about his feminine features. For he’s played by that great androgyne Tilda Swinton, and will soon take on immortality at the urging of Queen Elizabeth I (played by Quentin Crisp: the second piece of perfect casting) who exhorts “do not fade”; and he’ll flit through various periods from 1600 to the early nineties unchanged apart from the minor detail of casually switching sex at the start of the eighteenth century, to become a woman.

The lighthearted tone is taken from Virginia Woolf’s source novel, her winking authorial presence transferred to the lines scattered throughout, and sometimes simply an arch look, directed by Swinton to the camera. The book was essentially a love letter to Vita Sackville-West and her urge to non-conformity, set to a backdrop of 300 years of changing fashions and fortunes in British history, and fulfilling her envy of being a man. Potter has streamlined and arranged her film into brief chapters, treating of different themes: death, love, poetry, society etc. The opening episode achieves the greatest affect, due in part to Crisp’s heartfelt embodiment of melancholy at passing time. This rubs off on Orlando, whose journey, in part, is from profound sadness at the prospect of future happiness’s end, to a circular embrace of the ever-/unchanging moment.

The journey from male to female is far shorter; differences between the sexes, outside of a societal or political realm, are consistently erased, each regarded by the other as equally treacherous in love. The switch is prompted in the midst of battle (Orlando has a spell as a diplomat in the middle-east during the seventeenth century) when he decides not to act as a man, that is, not to die uncomplainingly for a cause in which he does not believe. Orlando remains essentially unchanged by the physical transformation, but whereas, as a man, his non-conformism presents few problems bar disapprobation at his courting a Russian diplomat’s daughter, the restrictions placed on him as a woman are considerably more constraining. Thus she bears the patronising pontifications of Pope, Swift and Johnson in an eighteenth-century salon, and finds herself under threat of losing home, fortune and title if unable to produce an heir (“legally dead” and “female” being virtually interchangeable terms). She has the opportunity to do this in a fleeting encounter with a nineteenth-century American (Billy Zane), whose hints of a man-of-the-future, of the industrial age, are subsumed to his position as an emblem of liberty, with which Orlando wholly concurs. She’s left in the present day (1992) bereft of the trappings of class, but complete with a daughter, a memoir and a sense of serene acceptance, serenaded by Jimmy Somerville as a flying golden angel.

Needless to say, Swinton owns the film, a past master at projecting otherworldliness and a sexuality that is less ambiguous than unknowable; with those black eyes and porcelain whiteness she’s an improbably human first cousin to Bowie’s Thomas Newton (and I dream of the biopic in which she plays him). But the other major contributing factor to the film’s success is the sumptuous production design by Ben van Os and Jan Roelfs, and costumes by Sandy Powell, beautifully photographed by Aleksei Rodionov, from the glowing candlelit red and gold of the Elizabethan era, to the monochromatic palette of the snow-bound “Love” section (not a sentiment to be trusted, we can glean throughout) and the pale cool tans of the middle-eastern interiors. If it looks a bit stiffly Greenaway at times, that might be put down to the arthouse voguishness of the era (there’s even hints of Nyman on the soundtrack and a similarly overt facility is present in Orlando’s brief, pregnant dash across WWI no-man’s land to get to the present day) but more naturally to the fact that van Os and Roelfs are longtime collaborators of his. And their work is so beautiful that it scarcely matters. Likewise Powell surpasses herself on a much larger canvas than those offered by Edward II or Caravaggio, from the inky-black silver-studded doublets of 1610, to a simply gorgeously detailed blue and green dress for the literary salon of 1750. The slightly heightened design of décor and costume (and all those wigs!) accomplishes the delicate balancing act not only of providing the detail that suggests everyday life, but also serving to keep ever-present in mind their masking, superficial nature, in a story which is as much as anything about the nature of self as non-physical.

Yet to get to grips with the non-physical self of Orlando is a slippery task; by his very nature Orlando half-seems like a figment, an individual difficult to pin down. No surprise then that both book and film share these qualities as a whole, but with their central character they share also a disarming, matter-of-fact strangeness and a charming, flitting lightness of touch. The passage of an unchanging, and frequently passive individual through successive periods of a nation’s history is used only obliquely for satirical or sociological ends, and as no more than an emblem for passing time; that the aristocracy has crumbled, and that women enjoy greater freedom than their ancestors is barely implied. Along with a fine insistence on ignoring gender boundaries, the film’s most overt statement is that Orlando has learnt through such a lengthy passage to value time primarily in its moments, and if the film does not particularly probe the issues it raises, its covers plenty of ground with grace and quick humour.

d/sc Sally Potter p Christopher Sheppard ph Aleksei Rodionov ed Hervé Schneid pd Ben van Os, Jan Roelfs m David Motion, Sally Potter cast Tilda Swinton, John Wood, Quentin Crisp, Charlotte Valandrey, Heathcote Williams, Billy Zane, Jimmy Somerville
(1992, UK/Rus/Fr/It/Neth, 93m)
posted by tom newth at

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