Director: Sally Potter
Screenplay: Sally Potter
Based on the Novel by: Virginia Woolf
Starring: Tilda Swinton, Billy Zane, Quentin Crisp, John Bott
Country: UK, Russia, France, Italy, Netherlands
Running Time: 94 min
Year: 1992
BBFC Certificate: 15

Twenty years after its initial release, Sally Potter’s Orlando remains a film defined by its contradictions. Though filled with post-modern tricks and jokes it is a deeply earnest work. Based on a novel from the 1920s and with a narrative spanning four centuries, its tone and politics are peculiarly specific to the early 1990s. Highly critical of cultural traditions, it revels in period detail. And while it is overtly a film of ideas, it doesn’t necessarily have that much to say. None of which is to suggest the film is a failure. Indeed, what impresses most is Potter’s willingness to embrace contradiction in a way that escapes categorisation. Never is the viewer allowed to become too comfortable without a wink to the camera, or the narrative leaping forward a hundred years (or so).

More so than Virginia Woolf’s original book, the topic under examination is gender identity: do we act and feel the way we do because of who we are, or because of how society tells us to be? Are men and women really so different? The film’s protagonist has a useful perspective on these issues, having been both for considerable lengths of time. Orlando (played throughout by Tilda Swinton) begins as a somewhat fey young man in the court of Elizabeth the First. Fashionably feminine, he becomes a favourite of old queen Liz (amusingly played by old queen Quentin Crisp) who bestows upon him land and titles with one absurd condition: that he never fade, wither, or grow old. In the first of the film’s blithely unexplained impossibilities, he doesn’t. As the years pass, Orlando retains his youth, but grows increasingly disenchanted with male experience, even as society evolves, failing to find solace in love, poetry or politics. Tellingly, Orlando’s journey as a man ends alone in an arid desert, so utterly lacking in positive options that he decides (cue impossibility II) to become a woman, something that occurs quite naturally overnight. When she awakes, Orlando finds the world more accepting in some regards, but denying her status and intellectual ambition, a state of affairs that brings us up to the present.

It is impossible to imagine any of this working at all without Swinton’s exceptional performance and unique screen presence. Central to the film’s thesis, Orlando is the same person regardless of gender or time. Drifting through the decades Swinton succeeds in expressing both amusement and tremendous hurt at the events and attitudes that confront her. Orlando was the film that launched her on the path to her current stardom, although Hollywood was slow to figure out how to use her talents. But while Swinton was ahead of her time, a few other aspects of the film have dated badly. For a film that seemingly aspires to be light on its feet, some scenes do have a tendency to plod after a while, made worse by a score plagued with awful electric guitar. More significantly, having demonstrated that social expectations can be stifling, Potter is less clear on what should be done about it. The ending appears to suggest salvation might come in the form of experimental video art, a prophecy that probably seemed more likely at the time.

So, Orlando is part one-of-a-kind brilliance and part baffling relic. Either way, it remains an important and worthwhile experience and the new Artificial Eye blu-ray is undoubtedly the best way to view it, at least if your player is locked to region B. All the extras (in standard definition) have been carried over from the DVD special edition, including two pleasant location-based documentaries made during filming and ten minutes of scene-specific commentary from Potter. Missing (presumably due to rights or money) is a more recent full commentary track by Potter and Swinton that was included on the region A release. Picture and sound are both significant improvements over DVD, the former really showcasing the lavish costumes and beautifully composed deep-focus photography. There is heavy grain to the image at times, though that seems appropriate given the film’s vintage and budget.

Review by Stan Goodspeed

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