Prince Edward County’s Newspaper of Record
July 15, 2024
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“No difference at all—just a different sex”

Before her adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel Orlando: A Biography, Sally Potter was known as a choreographer, musician, performance artist, and maker of experimental short films. She brought the full array of her talents to this, her first feature film, not only as director, but as co-writer of both the screenplay and the score, along with David Motion.

Orlando earned international recognition: two academy-award nominations and more than twenty-five awards and prizes at film festivals around the world.

Potter could scarcely have chosen more challenging subject-matter. Woolf’s novel chronicles the life of a young English aristocrat, born as a man toward the end of Elizabeth I’s reign, who lives for more than three centuries without visibly aging and who spontaneously transforms into a woman. It is partly a satire of misogyny, ridiculing the contempt for women embedded in Britain’s literary culture and the injustice of its inheritance laws. It is also, in the words of Nigel Nicholson, the son of Vita Sackville-West — aristocrat, author, and scandalous lesbian — “the longest and most charming love letter in literature.”

When Woolf wrote Orlando, her relationship with Sackville-West was at its most fervent. The character of Orlando is really an idealized portrait of Vita — minus her infidelities and bad politics. Above all, Orlando is a serious study of gender as a set of roles people must perform based on social and conventional expectations, as well as of its material and legal constraints.

This is also a novel about its own creation: at various times throughout his (and later her) life, Orlando works on a quasi-autobiographical long poem. The novel ends on 11 October 1928, the day Orlando was published.

Watching Potter’s adaptation is nothing like reading Woolf’s novel. On every page, Woolf’s narrator is vividly present: at times assertive, witty, acerbic, lyrical, and richly descriptive, the narrator’s voice unfolds Orlando’s inner experience. Potter’s film, in contrast, is full of long silences; it tells its story visually. The costumes, for which designer Sandy Powell was nominated for an Oscar, are sumptuous, and the settings are sometimes magisterial, sometimes exotic, and sometimes intimate — these are Potter’s storytelling tools.

A scene in which Orlando strides in frustration through a landscape maze, dressed one moment in an eighteenth-century dress and the next in a Victorian crinoline, conveys in seconds the trans-historical oppression of women that Woolf takes many pages to unravel.

Tilda Swinton is extraordinary as Orlando: in every scene she captures the viewer’s attention. She projects a sort of naive blankness, as if to say, “Here I am in this unprecedented situation: who am I now, and how should I behave?”— which is precisely the point that Woolf’s novel makes about gender roles.

In some ways, Swinton works against Woolf’s intention: where in the novel, Orlando successfully projects the outward traits of aristocratic masculinity, it is hard to believe that anyone could take Swinton, no matter how bedecked in courtly attire, to be a man.

After Orlando’s transformation, Swinton looks straight at the camera and says, “No different at all — just a different sex.” This scene comes across less as a bold foray into androgyny than as a character coming fully into her own. Still, her appearance, ethereal and unearthly in a way that recalls David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth, perfectly conveys the character’s strangeness, her inability to internalize society’s expectations until she ultimately finds freedom by giving up the attempt.

The film’s other roles are mostly cameos. The most noteworthy are Quentin Crisp’s delightful performance as an aging Queen Elizabeth, Billy Zane as Orlando’s lover Marmaduke Shelmerdine (a more ruggedly masculine figure in the film than in the novel), and Canada’s Lothaire Bluteau, who delivers a surprisingly charismatic performance as the Khan of Constantinople despite the role giving him little to work with.

Potter’s film is now more than thirty years old, and some of its elements don’t age well. Despite some mild satire of British insularity and colonialism, the exoticism of the Muscovite ambassadors and Turkish court are harder to overlook in a film from 1992 than in a novel from 1928. The film’s closing statement about gender, that freedom consists of finding common humanity, feels preachy, despite being delivered in song by Bronski Beat frontman Jimmy Somerville dressed as an angel. Woolf is never this heavy-handed.

Nonetheless, Sally Potter’s Orlando is a beautiful film that can be enjoyed on many levels. You can think about its statements on gender, or you can simply enjoy the magnetic Tilda Swinton, the stately homes and gardens, and the costumes. Either way, it will leave you with pictures that will linger in your memory for years.

Orlando screens at The Regent on Monday 17 June at 7pm.

This text is from the Volume 194 No. 24 edition of The Picton Gazette
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