Orlando is a modern classic for a variety of reasons. When it was released in 1992, the film rode on waves of excellent reviews, equally praising the audacity of the filmmaker and also the sheer beauty and wondrous performance of its leading lady, Tilda Swinton.
Orlando, adapted by Marleen Gorris from the novel by Virginia Woolf, tells the story of the titular aristocrat (Swinton), commanded by Queen Elizabeth I to live forever. Over the following centuries he experiences love, death, loss, political and social games, sex and rebirth. The film divides itself into sections, each representing key events that happen in Orlando’s life.
Orlando is initially presented to the audience as a child of privilege, a poetical character who enjoys “loneliness and isolation”; in essence he’s a Romantic. However, director Sally Potter includes an irreverent touch that imbues the movie with a sense of irony, creating more than just a stunning period film. Orlando addresses the camera directly, showcasing his thoughts to the audience, making us direct accomplices to his adventures.
The first section of the film introduces us to Orlando’s vision of the world and the concept behind his longevity. Queen Elizabeth, played by the iconic Quentin Crisp, is smitten by Orlando’s beauty and youth, and she gives him and his heirs a mansion, as long as he never “grows old, never withers”.
As Orlando’s story progresses, and as political and social liberties are gained, he changes from a man to a woman, to which he comments, “same person, just different sex”. Potter has very much stamped her personality and personal philosophy on the movie by showing Orlando’s feminist evolution. This is a wonderful story, one where the main character states right at the beginning that he aims for companionship and love, something he experiences at the beginning of the film with a Russian princess played by Charlotter Valandrey, and later as a woman, with an American man, played by Billy Zane.
Orlando passes through the centuries until the late twentieth century when, as a single mother, she visits her mansion with her daughter. And despite having previously lost the mansion, she has at last gained what she always wanted: unconditional love that comes from herself and from her daughter. She’s finally happy and at peace.
Orlando is shot with such beautiful and detailed compositions that it feels as if you’re looking at period paintings that have sprung into life. Praise should go to Sandy Powel for the stunning costumes, the production designers and art directors and to the director of photography, Alexei Rodianov. Between them they have constructed a movie with real personality and a haunting beauty that affects all who experience it.
Sally Potter fashioned a remarkable work of art. In her subsequent films—The Tango Lesson (1997), The Man Who Cried (2000) and Yes (2004)—she has managed to create unique experiences, but somehow the results were slightly flawed, a criticism that can’t be applied to Orlando. Thanks to Tilda Swinton’s fluid, ambiguous, and androgynous sexuality, Potter’s movie is an idiosyncratic and exquisite piece of cinema.