Rarely have source material, director, and leading actress been more in alignment than in Orlando, the 1992 adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s novel, directed by Sally Potter and starring Tilda Swinton. Of course, it’s less than shocking to say that Swinton—by now America’s favorite androgyne—slips effortlessly into the role of the titular male nobleman who awakens halfway through the film to find himself a woman. And those who have followed Potter’s career would no doubt note that Orlando’s swirl of gender-as-performance imagery fits snugly within her feminist-oriented, theatrically bent oeuvre. Watching Orlando some 17 years after its U.S. theatrical run, however, proves a welcome reminder of just how skillfully they marshaled their respective gifts here, how openly they entered into a dialogue with Woolf’s playful, slippery text.
Good thing too, because Orlando in novel form is a far-from-easy book to adapt. Skipping across centuries of English history and offering little explanation for her protagonists’ gender switch-a-roo, Woolf refracts her ageless hero(ine)’s fantastical exploits through the archly poker-faced prism of historical biography. (Many of the book’s events are inspired by the life of Woolf’s lover, Vita Sackville-West.) This distancing device allows Orlando to become a kind of conduit through which Woolf explores shifting gender expectations and constrictions—a novel-of-ideas conceit that works beautifully because Woolf balances it out with an astringent empathy for Orlando’s altered societal role post-transformation. Rather than wrestle a more “relatable” arc from Orlando’s journey, Potter takes the novel’s state of sly inquisitiveness as her guiding spirit. Her screenplay glides elegantly from situation to situation (entanglements with an alluring Russian princess, played by Charlotte Valandrey, in the early 17th century; a journey to colonial central Asia in the 1650s; the prospect of losing both love and property in the 1800s), surveying the cultural topography of a given period and zeroing in on how much (or how little) changes as she works her way across the timeline. Appropriately, a given vignette’s primary concerns are announced in capitalized intertitles: poetry, sex, love, etc.
In the end, though, these are more novelistic structuring devices than springboards into deeper thematic inquiry. They play second fiddle to Potter’s and Woolf’s dominant double vision of gender as both an ever-malleable construction shaped by the specific historical moment, and an enduring method of social control wielded by those in power (i.e. men). The film bustles with soprano-voiced male singers, unwieldy wigs, and costumes paraded by both sexes, and a memorably commanding Queen Elizabeth I played by Quentin Crisp. A world of pageantry and primping, its members nevertheless divorce the porous boundaries between male and female social codes from the unequal levels of respect bestowed on each. Well-trodden ground, to be sure, and Potter pushes the satire into occasionally broad places. Orlando’s visit to an 18th-century intellectual salon, for example, finds such esteemed literary titans as Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift spouting pseudo-philosophic bile about the fairer sex’s questionable morals and justified lack of independence, as the now-female Orlando sits stewing with outrage. It’s a pertinent if obvious reminder of the era’s commonplace misogyny, reaching up to the higher ranks of the intelligentsia.
But if Potter’s ideas are familiar, her touch is light. Orlando brims with sprightly formal flourishes, looping gracefully into the film’s intellectual project while offering winking pleasures in their own right. Orlando will often directly address the camera, offering a telling look or revealing a stray thought. Foregoing the third-person narrator that Woolf’s faux-biography setup would imply, Potter provides a similar type of character alignment while stylishly underlining the notion of Orlando as performer, stepping outside his various historical and social roles to offer bits of commentary. That these insights often reflect in-the-moment emotions—Orlando giddily lets us in on his adoration of Russian princess Sasha, or her aghast reaction to being called a “spinster” by suitor Archduke Henry (John Wood)—complicates what would have been a simplistic sincere action/knowing aside dichotomy. But often Potter’s shrewdest moves are her simplest. At several moments throughout Orlando, her camera will linger on lengthy conversations between, say, Orlando and hunky would-be paramour Shelmerdine (Billy Zane). In place of a shot/reverse shot strategy, she attentively pans back and forth between the two as they discuss how their individual desires brush up against gendered societal norms, allowing one person to slip out of the shot to linger on the other listening, considering, readying a response. It’s a subtle visual metaphor for how Potter asserts her directorial presence within Orlando without getting in the way of Woolf’s richness and humor. Overt without being fussy, she leans in, listens close, and invites us to savor the pageant of ideas and images she alternately channels and constructs.
She also seems very aware of the gift she was given in Swinton’s magnificent central performance, a balancing act of self-awareness and emotional transparency that Swinton performs with the utmost skill. Just watch her as Orlando bemoans how limited his time with Sasha could be, conveying both the intensity of first-time passion and the callow possessiveness of young male desire. Or consider the waves of surprise, bemusement, and wonder that wash over Orlando’s face when she gazes upon her newly female body. “Same person. No difference at all…Just a different sex,” she muses to the camera, a hint of transgressive energy mixing with an almost-spiritual calm. In a film that refuses to mash up Woolf’s brainy text into prestige-pic mush, Swinton provides a crucial way into Orlando’s inner life. And if Swinton proves the film’s empathetic anchor, she is joined by an exemplary supporting cast who walk the line between cock-eyed caricature and flesh-and-blood human being with grace. This proves particularly true of Crisp, who transcends man-in-a-dress smirking to get at something fragile and warm beneath Elizabeth’s surface imperiousness.
Swinton, of course, has continued to explore her immense gifts on a variety of palettes, both independent and mainstream. And while it’s a little frustrating to read endless culture-page pieces commenting on her “gender ambiguity” while directors largely refrain from exploring its further reaches, she nevertheless remains a vital and intriguing force within current cinema. I’m not sure the same can be said about Potter. I fully admit to not seeing The Tango Lesson, her follow-up to Orlando. However, her three features released in the aughts—The Man Who Cried, Yes, and Rage—have all been a bit wanting of the skillful weaving of form, narrative, and theme seen throughout Orlando. Her commitment to cinematic experimentation and interest in the intersections of performance, gender, and social roles remain strong, but too often her films can be defined by the ostentatious stylistic gambits at their center and little more (Yes: the one with the dialogue in iambic pentameter; Rage: the one that premiered on cellphones; The Man Who Cried: the one…um…where Cate Blanchett talked in the theeck Russian ack-cent). All three films have stirring moments, and I generally enjoyed the crazy-quilt thematic jumble that was Yes: ethnic tensions and body issues and neo-colonialism, oh my! Yet it’s a quilt best appreciated when hung up on a wall and admired; attempt to wrap it around you, and you’ll find little to keep you warm.
One can argue that Potter’s ambitions got a bit unwieldy in Orlando as well, when she chose to alter Woolf’s ending and have the film conclude in 1990s Britain. Without giving too much away, the full-throated feminist epiphanies that mark its final moments (scored to a free-to-be-you-and-me anthem sung by a literally angelic Jimmy Somerville and captured by a young girl with a digital camera) feel a bit detached from the bemused ironies and wry compassion that came before. But if this finale is an explicit layering of Potter-specific concerns onto Woolf’s text, it’s hard to deny its audacity and joy. And when Potter’s camera finally rests on Swinton’s face (a tear peacefully making its way down her cheek, a Mona Lisa smile on her lips), the synthesis of written character, actorly presence, and directorial gaze haunts the mind and fills the heart in equal measure.