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With: Tilda Swinton, Billy Zane, Quentin Crisp, John Bott, Elaine Banham, Anna Farnworth, Sara Mair-Thomas, Anna Healy, Dudley Sutton, Simon Russell Beale, Matthew Sim, Jerome Willis, Viktor Stepanov, Charlotte Valandrey, Mary MacLeod
Written by: Sally Potter, based on a novel by Virginia Woolf
Directed by: Sally Potter
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some sensuality
Running Time: 93
Date: 09/01/1992

Orlando (1992)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Gender Roll

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I'm not sure why Sony Pictures Classics chose to re-release Sally Potter's Orlando at this time, but I'm glad they did. I saw the movie in the summer of 1993 and had mostly forgotten about it. My assessment back then was that it was gorgeous, but fairly cold. Eventually it was overshadowed by another brilliant, arty, female-directed movie, Jane Campion's The Piano. Now, I'm not sure if Orlando has aged well, or if I was better able to appreciate it, or both, but it was a great pleasure to see again.

Based on Virginia Woolf's 1928 novel, Orlando is divided up into several chapters: Death, Love, Poetry, Politics, Society, Sex, and Birth. Each takes place roughly 50 or 100 years apart. Tilda Swinton plays the title character, a young nobleman -- with a slightly androgynous look -- who becomes the favorite of the queen (Quentin Crisp in drag). She orders him to never grow old, and so he does just that. Later, already engaged, Orlando falls passionately in love with the beautiful daughter of a Russian ambassador, Sasha (Charlotte Valandrey), but winds up heartbroken for the next century or so.

He tries writing poetry, and then becomes an ambassador to a desert country; it's Constantinople in the book, but not named in the movie. After a violent uprising there, Orlando sleeps for several days and wakes up -- for no particular reason -- changed into a woman. Here, the movie departs from the book, and I shouldn't say anymore except to mention that our heroine meets a dashing adventurer (Billy Zane) and enjoys some long-awaited sugar.

The thing that really strikes me about this movie is that it's an adaptation of a classic novel, and a costume movie, but it does not take the usual, boring route, staying "true" to the novel and making sure the costumes and sets are properly frilly. (See The Young Victoria for the latest, yawn-inducing sample.) It manages to strip the novel down to its essence, break it up into cinematic blocks, and bring it up to date.

Moreover, for a movie that takes place over centuries, it feels remarkably compact; it never skims or feels shallow. It spends good energy on the tiny bits of Orlando's life that are relevant. It also has a sense of humor: Orlando occasionally addresses the audience and comments upon the action. And lest we forget that it's absolutely gorgeous. It goes beyond just pretty sets and costumes (though, of course, the sets and costumes were both nominated for Oscars). It has a very deliberate, crystalline cinematic quality to it, like a Kubrick or a Coen Brothers production. It's very specifically planned, and defiantly oddball.

Potter has since turned into a stylistically interesting, passionate filmmaker, though she has made only four other movies since Orlando: The Tango Lesson, The Man Who Cried, Yes, and Rage. Almost all of them seem ahead of their time, suddenly appearing and taking the audience unawares. The simple fact that the audience might finally be ready for Orlando seems like a perfect reason for a re-release. Now I'm ready to see her other films again.

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