In 1928, ”Orlando: A Biography” by Virginia Woolf was published, a story about a poet who changes sexes and lives for centuries. Based on the family history of the aristocrat Vita Sackville-West, Woolf felt inspired by her friend and lover with whom she shared a liberal view of sex. Recognized as great literature from the start, ”Orlando” was also attractive to readers who wanted gossip on the author’s relationship with Sackville-West. The book became a feminist classic, making it possible for other women to start writing about gender as an issue.
In 1984, Sally Potter was primarily a theater director and performance artist, but she had made a few films as well. When she presented the idea to turn ”Orlando” into a movie, she faced an uphill climb. It would take another decade before the dream became real, possibly due to a lack of interest from male studio bosses.
An effective command
In the autumn years of Queen Elizabeth I (Quentin Crisp), she has found a close friend in a young nobleman, Orlando (Tilda Swinton). On her deathbed, she promises him land and money, telling him that it is his (and his heirs’) as long as he follows her command: ”Do not fade. Do not wither. Do not grow old”. A castle is built on the land and Orlando becomes its master. He also takes the late Queen’s words literally; over the following centuries, Orlando does not grow old, as he spends time with poets and artists. When he’s appointed ambassador to the Ottoman Empire and goes to Constantinople, a remarkable thing happens: he’s transformed into a woman.
Keeping it simple
It’s easy to see why anyone would find the novel difficult to film because of its sprawling nature, taking place over 400 years. But ”uninteresting”, as Potter claimed some studio insiders had referred to it, is certainly a ridiculous thing to say about a novel that has had such impact. It was turned into a theater play in 1989 and when Potter finally was able to make the film, she needed to keep it simple, eliminating anything in the story that didn’t keep it moving forward. She also invented reasons for Orlando’s lack of aging and subsequent sex change, events that were unexplained in the novel; they are clever additions to Woolf’s work. Potter sweeps us along for a breathtaking journey through time, keeping us hooked thanks to exceptional costume and production design.
In the end, we don’t really know Orlando all that well.
The main weakness of the film is its episodic structure; not all of the sequences where Orlando deals with major historical figures are all that interesting. In the end, we don’t really know Orlando all that well. But the core of Woolf’s intention remains there. Her novel was meant as satire, illustrating the profound injustice of a system where Sackville-West should have inherited her estate, but was denied because of her gender; instead, it went to a male cousin of hers. The gender-bending concept ridicules the idea that there should be a difference.
Having gay icon Quentin Crisp play Queen Elizabeth is a stroke of brilliance, coming a few years before Crisp, near the end of his life, would reach the conclusion that in a different era he might have been able to live as transgender. He’s a marvel to behold and so is Swinton in her international breakthrough, equally convincing as a tender young man and as a woman coming into her own.
Orlando 1993-U.K.-France-Italy-The Netherlands-Russia. 93 min. Color. Produced by Christopher Sheppard. Written and directed by Sally Potter. Novel: Virginia Woolf. Cinematography: Alexey Rodionov, Andrew Speller. Music: David Motion, Sally Potter. Production Design: Ben van Os, Jan Roelfs. Costume Design: Sandy Powell. Makeup: Morag Ross. Cast: Tilda Swinton (Orlando), Billy Zane (Shelmerdine), Lothaire Bluteau (The Khan), John Wood, Charlotte Valandrey, Heathcote Williams… Quentin Crisp, Simon Russell Beale, Toby Jones.
Trivia: Jones’s first film role. Orlando’s daughter in the film is played by Potter’s niece Jessica.
BAFTA: Best Makeup Artist.
Last word: “I did endless skeleton diagrammatic plots, all to find the guiding principle and then reconstruct the story from the inside out. I also went back to research Woolf’s sources. And then, finally, I put the book away entirely for at least the last year of writing and treated the script as something in it own right, as if the book had never existed. I felt that by the time we were getting ready to shoot I knew the book well enough, was enough in touch with its spirit, that it would have been a disservice to be lavish to it. What I had to find was a live, cinematic form, which meant being ruthless with the novel. In other words, I learnt that you have to be cruel to the novel in order to be kind to the film.” (Potter, BFI)