Tilda Swinton's performance, in its nuanced directness, was central for Sally Potter to realize her vision, her interpretation, of Virginia Woolf's novel into cinema.
In this masterly classic of British cinema, Tilda Swinton plays the four hundred year old, or so, Orlando. By the end of the story, she has become free of all the encumbrances of gender, class, property, history, particularly depicted in that scene when she returns, with her young daughter, riding a motorcycle with a sidecar, to their ancestral stately home, a rather palatial residence by the Thames, serenely mingling, and watching, the usual throng of tourists, no-one commenting, or even seeing, the uncanny resemblance of the woman standing beside them with the portrait of her as young Orlando on the wall, a painting of her when she was still a young man in the 17th century. As the character says, talking to us, the viewers: “Same person, different sex. That's all”.
By returning to the nest where her (his) career began, she is now free to fly out of that nest, which is, ultimately, a nest of vipers. Illuminating is the scene where, having recently become a woman, she endures the disdain of a gathering of enlightened 18th century poets, including Alexander Pope, who all conclude that a woman needs the guiding hand of a father, or a husband, all questioning her presence in the salon on her own.
In Sally Potter's interpretation of the central character of the novel, the film opens with young Orlando reading, and writing poetry under an oak tree, preparing himself to the forthcoming visit of the old Queen Elizabeth I (sublimely portrayed by Quentin Crisp). After, briefly, becoming her lover, the Queen grants Orlando the deeds of the ancestral stately home, on one condition: that he shall not grow old. This is how we get to see him, now a woman, on the same field in the closing scene, daydreaming under that same oak tree, her daughter running around, a video camera replacing the quill that the younger Orlando used to write his poem The Oak Tree, all those centuries past, and recently accepted by a rather obnoxious publisher (upon rewriting it, of course), whilst an angel (Jimmy Sommerville) appears floating above the trees (we see, in the features section of the Blu-ray disc, how this was achieved), falsetto singing, the future shining for them as a tear slowly runs down her face.
She no longer looks directly at the camera, confiding in us, the audience, as she did in the opening scene. There no longer need for that.
The episode where Orlando fells madly in love with Princess Sasha (Charlotte Valandrey), the daughter of the Russian Ambassador (Viktor Stepanov), during the great frost of the beginning of the 18th century (these scenes were filmed in Russia), much to the chagrin of the aristocratic young lady to whom he is betrothed. This scene sets the pace and the mood for the rest of the story, as we see over and over Orlando defying the social conventions of the time as she follows her own path, her own heart.
The other scene that Sally Potter sets up to show Orlando's nature is when we see him worrying for the fate of a rebel attacking the city in Central Asia, where he has been posted as an ambassador by the king (while in the novel this city is indicated as being Constantinople, in the film the actual location is not specified), taking no notice when he is told that it does not matter, that the fallen soldier is not a man, but the enemy.
Further adventures follow, where, Orlando, becoming a woman after a long sleep, returns to England, taking hold of her ancestral home, and its delights, until it is finally taken away from her as she is legally dead, and, on top of that, by being a woman, she can no longer hold the deeds of the property.
Upon meeting the loquacious and idealist Shelmerdine (Billy Zane), she has a daughter, and but she refuses to go with him to America, where the future lies, by simply asking him “when this future is going to come”.By doing so, she liberates herself, and her daughter, from all the ties entrapping her to the zeitgeist.
“Same person, different sex. That is all”.
This Blu-ray release contains a series of documentaries on how the film was made, plus an interview to Sally Potter, which would be of interest to cinephiles. Particularly enlightening is the section that narrates the ins and outs of filming in Russia, just before the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Orlando Blu-ray disc is already on sale in Britain, courtesy of Artificial Eye.
Sally Potter’s dazzling adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s classic novel is the tale of the apparently immortal Orlando, who begins an epic quest for love and freedom in the court of Elizabeth I as a man and completes the search 400 years later as a woman. This journey takes Orlando from the frozen river Thames and central Asia, where he changes sex, through to romantic love and loss in the Victorian age, motherhood and war in the twentieth Century, until finally arriving in the present moment. Tilda Swinton leads an outstanding international cast in this enchanting, witty, visually stunning and brilliantly original story of self-discovery, romance and adventure.
- Documentaries ‘Orlando Goes to Russia’, ‘Orlando in Uzbekistan’
- and ‘Jimmy Was An Angel’
- Selected scene commentary by Sally Potter
- Interview with Sally Potter
- Venice Film Festival press conference
- Theatrical trailer
- Stills galleries