Reviews and notes
1992 Venice, Toronto, Thessaloniki
2018 Transatlantyk [Poland], Wellington
Many intellectual traditions vie for ascendancy in Sally Potter’s adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s 1928 modernist novel, but the joy is that the film comes over simply: a beautiful historical pageant of 400 years of English history, full of grand visual and aural pleasures, sly jokes, provocative insights, emotional truths – and romance. The film, comprising six or so major scenes, begins at the opulent court of the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth (played by self-proclaimed stately homo Quentin Crisp), where the male Orlando receives favour, an estate and immortality; it then follows his quest for love in 50-year jumps through the Civil War, the early colonial period, the effete literary salons of 1750 by which time Orlando is apparelled as a woman, and the Victorian era of property, to a 20th century postscript added by Potter. The fine, stylised performances from an idiosyncratic international cast are admirably headed by Tilda Swinton’s magnificent Orlando, who acts as the film’s complicitous eyes and ears. It’s a critical work, in that it comments wryly on such things as representations of English history, sexuality/androgyny and class – but made in the spirit of a love-poem to both Woolf and the England that made us. It’s wonderful.
- Wally Hammond, Time Out.
Sally Potter's long awaited adaptation - or, more appropriately, interpretation - of Virginia Woolf's celebrated novel (which was written as a love poem to the flamboyant Vita Sackville-West) charts a journey from one Elizabethan age to another. The mythical Orlando shakes off the fetters of biological and cultural destiny to become - as angelic songster Jimmy Somerville, complete with laurels, wigs and lyre, pipes in the finale - a reinvented being that is "one with the human race". Woolf's creation cannot be easily classified. S/he is not so much an androgyne, rather a person who passes from male status to female over the course of 400 years, finding a first love in the exotic, foreign Sasha which is subsequently reflected and consummated in the adventurer Shelmerdine (Billy Zane may not be able to act but he has a smile at least as bewitching as Charlotte Valandrey's Sasha).
Sexual ambiguity no longer causes the frisson it did when Woolf was writing, so Potter has made the question of status the central point of the film - Orlando learns how a change in gender is equivalent to excommunication. Lady Orlando is faced with two lawsuits, one which pronounces her legally dead and therefore unable to own property, while the other informs her that she is female - "which amounts to the same thing." But this death to the world is a rebirth for Orlando, who surveys her naked female form in the mirror in an echo of Botticelli's Birth of Venus
. Orlando is never seen naked in his male incarnation - he is never authenticated as a man, rather he remains effeminately boyish. But with Tilda Swinton - in playful mode with frequent nods and winks to the camera - in the title role, the audience knows that there is a woman underneath those clothes. As a privileged child of the aristocracy, Orlando is in any case feminised by the gorgeous finery of his age. Clothes maketh the society man and woman - and Orlando seems as uncomfortable in the frock-coats and wigs, the doublet and hose of male attire, as in the cumbersome crinolines that hamper her progress through the Great Hall. Only in Eastern robes does Orlando appear to be free - as much from the constraints of Englishness as of gender.
is full of jokes about the English, whether it be the custom of talking loudly to foreigners (with knowing wit, this particular exchange is in French) or the imperialist habit of collecting countries. The film is also a romp through English history, which it presents as richly textured spectacle. Potter creates an embroidered style similar to that of Peter Greenaway (whose production designers Ben Van Os and Jan Roelfs she has borrowed) which, together with the Nymanesque score confirms her place in a particular tradition of British European-influenced art cinema. She also flirts with the attractions of pomp and circumstance. The pageant for Queen Elizabeth I is a visual feast of autumnal russet, red and gold, while the eighteenth-century salon's pastel palette could have been devised by Wedgwood. Details such as the tea-cup shaped topiaries - perfect emblems of the clipped Victorian era - are a delight. A frozen tableau of a woman with flowers and fruit trapped under the ice of the River Thames has a cold beauty - until we realise what is entailed in the creation of that image.
While there are many ironic touches - such as the casting of Quentin Crisp as the Virgin Queen and the twentieth-century salonier Ned Sherrin as Addison - the overladen visual style perversely turns the film into a celebration of the cultural heritage that Orlando in her liberated female state must reject. In the closing scenes, Orlando, in gentrified jodphurs and jacket, joins the tourists and takes her cherubic daughter around the home that once was hers, but which now they can only look at with wonder. In many ways, this epitomises the experience of viewing Orlando itself.
- Lizzie Franke, Sight & Sound, March 1993.
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