I have featured a lot of mainstream films recently, so I decided this week I should go with a film that might not be as well-known, but definitely deserves attention. That film is Sally Potter’s masterful retelling of Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando.
Orlando is a difficult film to describe, but I’ll do my best. The year is 1600, Orlando (Tilda Swinton) is a young man of noble birth chosen by the elderly Queen Elizabeth I (Quentin Crisp) as her favorite. The Queen gives Orlando an estate and the promise of fortune for his heirs, on one condition; he must never wither and fade, he must not grow old. The queen soon dies and in the frozen winter of 1610 the young Lord falls in love with Sasha (Charlotte Valandrey) the daughter of the Muscovite ambassador, and learns of the pain of heartbreak.
Time marches on and Orlando remains the same, a century passes as he dabbles in poetry only to be laughed at for being a man of wealth without talent. To escape his loneliness the young man agrees to act as ambassador to King Charles II and soon finds himself in Constantinople. On his journey to self-discovery he learns that engaging in battle, a requirement of men at the time, is unbearable for him. One morning Orlando awakes to find he has metamorphosed into a woman. He is exactly the same person, simply a different sex. What follows is a look at the absurd gender biases the now Lady Orlando must face. I’ll leave it at that, and hope you watch the film yourself.
Orlando is born an innocent child of the natural world. As a nobleman he does not behave as such, but rather looks at life with the curiosity and naivety of a child. Orlando’s nobility is directly responsible for his melancholy and loneliness. While he has a magnificent house and title, he spends most of his life in solitude with his servants and dogs. He, and later she, is entranced by beauty and desperate to experience love. The poets whom she worships and the characters she meets are sometimes disappointing, but from her experiences she learns the ways of the world and comes to understand humanity. It’s through this understanding of life that she eventually discovers the happiness she has sought for hundreds of years.
This isn’t a story about suspense or action, in fact there are moments of silence where the camera simply holds on Orlando conveying so much meaning it seems other films move much too fast. In order to enjoy the story you really need to suspend disbelief, put aside any questions of logic, and just except what is happening as easily as the characters do. Orlando is an epic of individuality, it doesn’t tangle itself in plot or shove the meaning down your throat. It’s an art film, so maybe it’s a bit abstract in places, but that’s what makes it so enjoyable.
Whether the story makes sense to you or not, this film is a feast for the senses. It’s a visual knock-out, each new setting different from the last, but equally stunning. The costumes are gorgeous, as is the scenery which was almost entirely shot on location rather than on film sets. The result is a film that is an ode to nature and makes you wish more films would utilize of the world around us rather than re-create it.
I don’t believe this film would have been possible without Tilda Swinton, she slips so easily from male to female making what could have easily been an awkward performance into something understated and believable. She is truly hypnotizing to watch, not just because of her unique beauty but also her incredible ability to express emotion through the most subtle changes in her expression.
This film is exceptional because it is a work of art, a study in gender, and so different from anything else out there. Sally Potter is a visionary and I cannot stress enough how important it is to support female directors since there are so few out there considering that we populate half the world. Orlando is the sort of film that sticks with you, not because it has a surprise ending or explosive action, but because it makes you think about life and identity while providing you with thrilling beauty. Give it a try, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.
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