Review: Orlando / Cert: PG / Director: Sally Potter / Screenplay: Sally Potter / Starring: Tilda Swinton, Billy Zane, Quentin Crisp / Release Date: Out Now
On its release in 1992, this curious tale of an aristocrat staying forever young over the course of four centuries wowed audiences and garnered critical plaudits. Now, 20 years on, it makes its appearance on Blu-ray. Fingers crossed it's not showing its age. Wouldn't that be ironic?
Not to worry, it seems just as fresh, spry and quirky now as it did back then. Based on a Virginia Woolf novel, it recounts the bizarrely extended life of one Orlando (Swinton). A handsome boy who catches the eye of the elderly Queen Elizabeth in the year 1600, he's bequeathed a title and estate by her on condition that he refrains from getting any older. Over the decades, he dabbles in poetry, breaks hearts and has his broken in turn, all without sprouting a single grey hair. After a century or so, he goes off for a stint as ambassador in Central Asia, and returns a changed woman. Because, as if immortality wasn't enough to have on your plate, this is also a tale of gender bending. Poor Orlando quickly discovers that being a woman is a tough gig. Those tight whalebone corsets are a pain, and then there's the question of what the loss of his penis will do to his claim to his estates.
It's all very sumptuous, but in a pleasantly homespun way typical of the best British art cinema of the period. Sandy Powell and Dien van Straalen, whose exquisitely detailed and imaginative costumes add so much to the proceedings, worked for Derek Jarman and Peter Greenaway respectively, and there are clear links to both directors. You get beautiful, formalized set-pieces reminiscent of Greenaway's work (an early stand-out being some scenes on a frozen Thames), and Sally Potter borrows Jarman's habit of casting cult figures in minor roles. Singer Jimmy Somerville pops up as an angel, author Heathcote William cameos as a seedy poet and gay icon Quentin Crisp plays Elizabeth. Naturally, given the fleetingness of celebrity, these guest appearances have much less impact now than they once did, but they certainly don't spoil the film, and Crisp has the role of frail, old queen down to a T. Besides, the only actor who really matters is Swinton, and her performance is something to behold – very funny in the early scenes when she's a gauche, gangling lad, and full of buttoned-up passion after her transformation into a woman.
As a spectacle and a star vehicle, Orlando is a triumph. But as a drama, there's not a whole lot of meat on its bones, and its insights into gender aren't very searching. When Orlando's a man, he has free will but no clue what to do with it. When he becomes a she, he (or she, sorry, we're getting confused) gains insight but loses the power to make decisions for himself. Answer: do away with gender, it's a Bad Thing. Except that Orlando feels, if anything, like a celebration of gender, in that it really hots up in the Victorian period, when women become women; red of lip, heaving of bosom, and men become men; reckless, passionate and looking like Billy Zane.
Yet, drastic though they might seem, such shortcomings scarcely dent the movie's appeal. It defies criticism as a rare example of pure cinema, where the spectacle is its own justification, and as an exercise in whimsical pageantry, not unlike the Olympic Games opening ceremony. And let's not forget that iconic moment where Orlando goes hurtling into a maze in one century and comes stumbling out in another. That bit's timeless.
Special Features: None