There's a lot to like about Orlando, Sally Potter's new film based on the 1928 novel of the same name by Virginia Woolf. It's smart, it's funny, it's hip, and it's a visual feast (a feat made all the more remarkable by writer-director Potter's paltry four-million-dollar budget).
There's also a lot not to like about Orlando. It's frequently pretentious, it's much less shocking than it would like to think it is, and it is saddled with a relatively unsympathetic main character.
The story winds through numerous subplots, but the basic premise is pretty simple: Orlando journeys through 400 years in time. Initially he's a man, but when, during wartime, he refuses to kill or be killed like a man, he is transformed into a woman.
Tilda Swinton, a wan-looking British actress known for her work with director Derek Jarman, is Orlando, both male and female. Swinton the actress is up to the task. Her performance is a marvel of subtle expressions and mannerisms. Unfortunately (at least for this picture) she is too soft-edged and fine-boned -- too feminine, in short -- to be convincing as a man. She's like the female version of a drag queen with a five o'clock shadow. Unlike Jaye Davidson in The Crying Game, to which Orlando has been compared, Swinton playing the opposite sex doesn't fool you for a second.
Much of The Crying Game's success was contingent upon Davidson's ability to cross-dress without arousing suspicion (while possibly arousing something else), but Potter's tack is to let the viewer in on the deception from the outset. It's the oldest trick in the director's handbook: make the viewer an accomplice. The first time Orlando appears, a narrator flatly states, "There could be no doubt about his sex." Anybody with sufficient vision to pass a driver's license exam can see that such is not the case. The voice-over goes on to comment on the custom of young men in Elizabethan England making themselves up to appear as feminine as possible. Potter wants you to play along with the joke, to be clever and accept the irony of the casting.
It doesn't work. Better than half the film deals with Orlando as a male; it's hard to achieve that critical suspension of disbelief when you're continually confronted with this vision of an actor who is obviously a woman pretending to be a man. Conversely, Potter's impish casting of Quentin Crisp, a legendary and flagrantly gay English author, as Queen Elizabeth I, works beautifully because it's a small part.
Orlando's story unfolds as a series of vignettes, each prefaced by a black screen with white block letters announcing either the upcoming sequence's date (e.g., "1610") or theme ("DEATH," "LOVE," "POETRY," and so on). As a transitional device, it's heavyhanded and unnecessary, only slightly less jarring than Swinton's occasional asides delivered to the camera.
As a young nobleman, Orlando catches aging Queen Elizabeth's lustful eye. So taken is the old crone with her new boy toy that she grants him property under the condition that he never grow old. Following the queen's death, Orlando becomes infatuated with Sasha, a coquettish Russian princess. In the process, he cruelly humiliates his English fiancee, who curses the treachery of men. Sasha, played by the beguiling Charlotte Valandrey, eventually betrays Orlando in spite of his wealth, leaving the nobleman to curse the treachery of women. It's a nifty turnaround.
While Potter clearly intends to inspire sympathy for the heartbroken innocent, she simultaneously subverts her intentions by having Orlando embarrass and ignore his English girlfriend. And it's doubly hard to pity the young aristocrat when he does nothing to help those less fortunate, who are forever crossing his path in various states of need. It's like watching a rich kid whine about being unhappy.
But even as Potter chips away at her protagonist's fragile appeal, she commits to celluloid some of the most vivid imagery in the history of the medium. It's the time of the Great Frost, when King James ordered the court to feast and entertain one another on the frozen river Thames, and the sequences of courtship, pageantry, and betrayal on the glittering ice are spectacular for their haunting beauty and virtuosity. They are, quite simply, unforgettable.
Orlando takes a nap and wakes up 40 years later. Having lost at love, he now fails at poetry as well. Potter has some wicked fun with Orlando's lame attempts at verse, but once again undermines audience sympathy for the protagonist. After all, no one wants to root for a spoiled, talentless aristocrat. Look at Ron Reagan, Jr.
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An ambassadorship in central Asia places Orlando in the battlefield, where he refuses to take up arms. His unwillingness to conform to the dictates of manly behavior results in his overnight transformation into a woman, and with it the film shifts from an innovative period piece to a feminist polemic. Orlando finds herself in the company of the great English writers of the day A Pope, Swift, Johnson A defending women's place in the world.
A new queen hands down an ultimatum to Orlando: marry and produce heirs or lose everything. A century passes. Orlando meets a dashing adventurer, gets knocked up, and declines to go to America with him. Billy Zane plays the handsome freedom fighter with all the subtlety of a character from a pulp romance come to life.
Unlike Woolf's novel, which ends in 1928, Potter closes her film in the 1990s with Orlando having a daughter and losing her property, but keeping her independence. She becomes a (shudder) writer, dresses in leather, refuses to compromise with editor-producer types (artistic integrity and all that), and cruises London on a motorcycle, the little one in a sidecar. In Woolf's day, the novel's ending made an important feminist statement; updated and translated to screen, the denouement comes off as somewhat transparent, even silly.
Still, audacious movies that address adult themes in an original fashion are in short supply these days. You hate to knock one when it comes along. Orlando is such a film and it places Sally Potter among the front ranks of modern directors. Tilda Swinton's performance is a career-maker, despite her unconvincing appearance as a man. And cinematographer Alexei Rodionov's crackerjack camera work, especially during the frozen Thames scenes (which were actually shot in St. Petersburg), is the stuff of greatness. Moviegoers could do a lot worse for their $6.50.