Though Ginger & Rosa is arguably Sally Potter’s best work to date, it’s certainly the English filmmaker’s most accessible. But that’s not to diminish her past experimental, more iconoclastic movies. Her previous work has clearly enriched this finely observed and affecting tale about two teenage girls coming of age in early-1960s Britain. Like Orlando, her adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s centuries-spanning novel which established her name internationally 20 years ago, there’s a strong female protagonist through whose POV the movie unfolds. We sense a deep personal involvement in the narrative, though not to the autobiographical extent of Potter’s The Tango Lesson, in which the director played herself. The formalist challenges she took on in the fashionista thriller Rage—comprised almost entirely of confessional close-ups—seem to have resulted in the huge emotional payoffs in the intimate scenes in the current film.
Orlando (#1–10 of 3)
The 1992 release of Orlando propelled director Sally Potter to forefront of independent filmmakers. She had achieved the seemingly impossible task of bringing to the screen Virginia Woolf’s fantastical 1928 novel about a 16th-century English nobleman who lives through three centuries, while aging only three decades and changing gender in the process. Not only did she create a sumptuous historical epic with independent financing (it marked the first film co-production with Russia), she also retained the wit and tongue-in-cheek lightness of the original, expanding Woolf’s story into the 20th century as well. The movie also launched the career of Tilda Swinton, the incandescent Scottish actress who played Orlando, as both male and female.
Potter had begun making experimental movies as a teenager in England and made her first full-length feature film The Gold Diggers, starring Julie Christie, in 1983. She had also pursued a career as a musician as well. The Museum of Modern Art in New York recently concluded a two-week retrospective of Potter’s four-decade avant-garde career, including her latest work Rage, a set of confessional vignettes about a New York fashion event seemingly recorded by a schoolboy on his cellphone, which was initially released on mobile phone applications prior to a theatrical release last year.
Tilda Swinton’s lamb-to-lion transformation in I Am Love made me want to see (or re-see) more of her work, so yesterday’s movie was a press screening of Orlando.
I missed Sally Potter’s adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s novel when it came out in 1992 and haven’t seen it since, though I kept meaning to, so I can’t say whether the digital work recently done to the film changed it in any way or if it just restored it to its original state. I can attest, though, that Orlando is a beautifully shot, imaginatively constructed, occasionally absurd, but more often tartly funny reverie on the limits of human existence and the possibility of transcendence. In part by translating some of Woolf’s pointed commentary into asides that Orlando directs to the camera (not that he always gets the joke, since he’s often the butt of it), the movie preserves the book’s satiric stake on stupid human tricks like colonialism, classism, and the glorification of war. And, first, last, and always, it takes on gender stereotyping. That’s done in countless small but tasty ways, like when Queen Elizabeth is played by a wink-free, regal Quentin Crisp. It also accounts for Orlando’s second magical transformation, which is one of the story’s main hooks.