The release on double DVD of Sally Potter’s elegant 1993 adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s gender-bending novel gives ambiguous boy/girls the world over the chance to renew their love with a film as bouncy, lustrous and flawed as the book it is based on. Almost a forgotten classic, like Orlando him/herself, it’s a spectacular flummox.
Orlando is a story beginning in Elizabethan times (with the Queen played brilliantly and unironically by Quentin Crisp) and continuing through a series of vignettes to the modern day. Starting out as a man, albeit a pretty smooth-cheeked one, (s)he (Tilda Swinton) becomes a woman overnight, with little comment. It all makes sense in a gender studies kind of way and to simplify matters, Orlando’s narration is simple but enigmatic. On the DVD’s interviews, Potter admits this tale of a pensive artistocrat who wants to be a poet is drenched in ambiguity and allusion, both aesthetic and thematic.
Potter’s best decision for her screenplay was to pick the most interesting bits of Woolf’s dense prose and focus on making each historical happening look as perfectly arranged as possible. Doing this means that we get beautiful ice-sculptures and skating forays when Orlando meets the Russian Princess, but none of his (he’s a man at this point) tedious mental travels with gypsies in the book. A stylishly studied director, Potter considers what is filmable rather than cramming all the story’s complications in.
Too manic and bizarre to be a period drama but too acutely historical to be a total fantasy, it’s at its best when it abandons itself to the book’s sumptuous set-pieces. Visually an obvious protegé of Derek Jarman, Sally Potter’s underrated career has shown her to be brilliant at sculpting human bodies like works of art. Tilda Swinton is the perfect toy for her to play with in this role, genuinely looking like a creature neither man nor woman. She can play the trashy effeminate Elizabethan aristocrat with convincing arrogance, but just as well, the patronised 18th century lady of leisure in movement-inhibiting dresses.
This latter period is easily the best for costume and scenery, which are superb throughout. Allowing Orlando to swish through endless mazes on her vast estate, the amazing use of colour in the film enters even more impressive areas, with her sky blue dress like neon in the middle of long green lanes and a grey sky. The story itself is slight – hence, each period is allowed to have strong visual signatures as the equivalent to Woolf’s long passages of thoughts. As the film progresses, the scenes get darker and more claustrophobic. Despite the undercurrent of campness (Jimmy Somerville appears as a castrato angel), Potter’s restraint ensures it never gets too out of hand. In the Victorian sections, this comes fully into play – there is a definite feel of misery despite her finding love of some sort. Finding true love is, ultimately, the main message of the story.
The film is not without its faults, however. The constant ironic addresses to camera, intended to mirror the style of literary narration, are particularly grating. Every monologue becomes irritatingly detached after scenes that have taken you on an emotional journey. This is at its worst in the ending – whilst inventing an original conclusion in an adaptation is a brave move, in this case, it’s a complete anti-climax and marred by a meaningless voiceover.
Perhaps it’s enough that the rest of the film is so beautiful and delightfully ambiguous. Along with other British filmmakers like Alex Cox and Jarman in the 80s, this is the kind of intellectual mini-epic that British directors excel in making. The accompanying DVD shows a cast and crew that were passionate about this project and their idealism spread to the attention to detail in every element of the production.