Director/Screenplay: Sally Potter
The notion that there is a Gay sensibility has been controverted by some people but this film seems to me to be in a Gay mode – the word ‘tradition’ is too strong at present. Some of the set-pieces at the beginning of Orlando’s adventures in Elizabethan England reminded one of Paradjanov’s films specially Colour of Pomgranates. Not in their look but in the tretment of the screen as a ‘picture’ (that films started out as “motion pictures” is something that western European and especially British Isles film-makes have tended to forget). The ‘picture’ here were like those Tudor-period pictures where the subjects all look out at the viewer. The welcome for Queen Elizabeth I to Orlando’s parents house is clearly based on such paintings – the skating scenes where Orlando waxes rather too familiar with Sasha the Muscovite princess is a bit sneaky, it is more like a Victorian genre painting than the genuine Elizabethan article.
Paradjanov (whose name was Paradjanian, it’s an Armenian name, but he was born in Moscow! – the joys of [federal] union!) based his images on the art of the Christian Caucasian peoples and also to some extent on Islamic art – his images are static like icons; they are also stunningly beautiful. This film might not be quite so overwhelming for people who live in these isles but it has been very popular in American (and it probably will be in Europe).
So far as the narrative itself is concerned, it is handled quite straight, so the oddities in the original novel by Virginia Woolf are simply taken for granted. And they are very odd oddities, Orlando is granted immortality and in the middle of the eighteenth century changes gender! This is after a period where the “male” Orlando’s realtionship with the local Indian Rajah was less than entirely heterosexual (it is not implied that they were “at it” – but even for the period it is pictured as … unrestrained).
Having become a female, Orlando is dragged through the law courts because she cannot be the owner of the stately pile we first saw in the 1500s, this last lasts somewhere in the region of 200 years … Orolando meets a number of Georgian intellectuals, Steele, Swift, Goldsmith and drinks tea with them. A hundred years later she has a fling with Shelmerdine, a Byronic freedom fighter, played by the beautiful Billy Zane. The last few scenes do not ring true – the action is updated to the 1990s, it should have been left in the 1920s.
The director of Orlando is Sally Potter who did Oranges Are Not The ONly Fruit for the BBC. As well as the high art mentioned in the first sentence she also employs other aspects of Gay sensibility – camp, for example. Orlando talks straight to the audience like a character from one of the Carry On films and we also have Jimmy Somerville as an Elizabethan castrato and a 1990s angel!
Tilda Swinton’s performance as Orlando is amazing, if only because she is not in the least believeable as a woman, or as a man.
Orlando is a lovely film to look at, it is funny and sad, has some great performances, and engrossing story and the viewer is not required to gawp at acres of flesh – I wouldn’t have minded a bit more of Billy Zane’s, though!
Reviewer: RL. Published in ‘upstart’ April 1993