“Do not fade. Do not wither. Do not grow old.” So commands Queen Elizabeth I to the androgynously beautiful young aristocrat Orlando (Tilda Swinton), the boy she has taken for her lover, and so he obeys, remaining unchanged over four centuries, or almost unchanged. One morning some hundred years later, the lad looks into the mirror while dressing and realizes he has transformed into a woman. “Same person, no difference at all,” she muses. “Just a different sex.” But true as that may be, her social and legal identity is completely redefined.
Tilda Swinton was largely unknown to the filmgoing world when she took on the role of fair, ageless young man who transforms into an ageless woman over the centuries and her androgynous looks evoke 17th century portraits of young male aristocrats. The Oscar-winning actress is of course far more famous today and the visual shock of the transformation no longer so surprising, but the journey is just as fascinating, entertaining and unexpected.
Filmmaker Sally Potter combines the experimental tools and feminist approach of her earlier films with art-house style and more conventional narrative storytelling to find the cinematic counterpart to Virginia Woolf’s writing in this 1992 adaptation of Woolf’s novel “Orlando: A Biography.” Visually, Potter recreates four centuries of British cultural history in painterly images and austerely constructed settings, from Orlando’s lavish manor to the frozen Thames of 17th century London to 18th century Constantinople, in Leningrad and in Uzbekistan. Narratively she plays with conventions and our expectations. Orlando speaks to the audience in brief, often witty asides and decades pass over the course of a single fluid sequence or in a cut. Potter craftily casts queer icon Quentin Crisp as Queen Elizabeth, who plays the part without a hint camp, bringing a sly dignity to the role while also foregrounding the complicated swirl of gender and sexual identity in the film. Within this slightly skewed perspective, the flouncy, flamboyant male fashions and long curly wigs donned for formal meetings and social occasions take an a whole new connotation, especially as Potter explores issues of male friendship and companionship.
The supplements are an impressive collection of archival material. The “Select Scenes Commentary with Sally Potter” is not an audio commentary track but a ten-minute featurette of Potter discussing a few elements of the film in detail, such as the scenes of Orlando’s asides to the camera (her cinematic version of the direct address sequences from the novel, but pared back through the shooting until there are only a few, very brief addresses, “a sort of complicity” she calls it) and the casting of Quentin Crisp (“He is the true queen of England, he’s my idea of royalty,” she confesses, as she describes his presence as way to turn the idea of sex and gender on its head right from the beginning). The documentaries “Orlando Goes to Russia,” which chronicles the two-year efforts of producer Christopher Sheppard and director’s assistant Renny Bartlett to negotiate shooting in Russia, and “Orlando in Uzbekistan,” a video diary by Robert MacNaughton featuring interviews with the cast and crew, are video productions shot on commercial cameras, technically primitive but invaluable production documents. “Jimmy Was an Angel” is an impressionistic look at the shooting of the angel scene with singer Jimmy Somerville, plus there is a video record at the Press Conference from the world premiere screening at the 1992 Venice Film Festival (with very weak audio) and a 13-minute video interview with Potter also from festival.