Orlando January 21, 2017
The 16th century English nobleman Orlando (both the star of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando: A Biography  and Sally Potter’s emboldened 1992 film adaptation) lived the kind of life all are simultaneously desperate to live and entirely afraid of. Born a man, Orlando (Tilda Swinton) was ordered by Elizabeth I (here comedically played by Quentin Crisp) to stay forever young, to make a mark on every century to cross his path. To succeed would provide him with one of Elizabeth’s prized estates, and, being a young man with an affinity for unrefusable offers, he did, even changing sexes toward the middle of his run from the late 1400s to the film’s present-day. And what a beguiling thing that is, watching as gender roles, times, and obstacles change over centuries through the eyes of both the female and the male.
Though unfamiliar with Woolf’s novella, its being one hundred eighty-four pages and its reputational standing as a fictional biographical account styled as a romp calls for safe assumptions that writer/director Potter’s acclimatization does justice to its game-changing source material. With the book holding court as a feminist classic thanks not only to its being written by a woman but also by its giving substance to gender fluidity and general inequalities between the sexes and the classes, then the cinematic Orlando does too.
While there’s a certain visual extravagance — augmented by tongue-in-cheek humor sustained by a smart usage of fourth-wall breaking — to maintain its slightly surreal textures, splendid is the way it explores androgyny itself without batting an eye but still takes the time to ponder gender dynamics and their transformations from 1500 to now. The film jumps ahead fifty years or so every twenty-something minutes, but even its brisk analyzations don’t hinder its many stimuli. It provocates and it dazzles, all the while cultivating an effortlessly light tone that renders it as being ambitious but not off-puttingly so.
Because of its rather nomadic structuring, though, we never get much of a grip on Orlando themselves, as it oftentimes goes for characters more representation than person. We're never much attached to them because such little effort is put forth to de-alienize them — we’re unremittingly confronted by a charming symbol that never serves as anything other than a catalyst for Woolf and Potter’s machinations. Swinton, however, is interminably likable, always watchable (even when the person she’s playing seems like a piece of paper in comparison to her wonderfully mysterious persona).
But while the latter’s striking and while Potter’s visual treatment is sensational, with fitting touches of unreality, Orlando itself is a mixed bag. It’s expertly performed and pieced together, but the peripatetic nature of its origin disallows it from consequentiality. I speculate it more likely will appeal to those well-versed in Woolf’s oeuvre. Outsiders, however, might find it zesty but shallow. B-