All reviews were originally written for The Columbus Guardian weekly newspaper between 1992 and 1994 and DreamWatch Magazine 1995 to 1997. All copyrights owned by the author.
Wednesday, September 8, 2010
The Kinks once musically suggested that "boys will be girls and girls will be boys." In Orlando, British director Sally Potter takes the idea just a bit further: the boy Orlando eventually becomes a woman. Even odder, Orlando is immortal, and it takes several centuries for anyone to notice the change.
Contradictions are at the heart of Potter's brilliant and slyly funny adaptation of Virginia Woolf's bold fantasy tale. The novel was originally written as a satiric pseudo-history of Woolf's friend and lover, Vita Sackville-West.
Since the book's first publication in 1928, a film version of Orlando has been one of those elusive projects that never quite got off the ground. The gender-bending nature of the story was one obstacle. Another drawback was the casual manner in which the novel trips through nearly 400 years of history.
But Potter makes the film work. Even more amazing - given that Orlando is definitely an "art film" - it's a reamrkably straightforward and accessible movie. It's as if the avant-garde has just discovered entertainment.
Orlando begins in 1600, as the youthful lord (Tilda Swinson) becomes the court favorite of Queen Elizabeth I (Quentin Crisp). Elizabeth bestows an estate on the androgenous-looking lad; eternal life and youth just happen to be part of the gift. (It's a fantasy, remember).
Orlando's sex change, meanwhile, takes place with barely a raised eyebrow. During a battle in the 18th century, he's shocked by the sight of a violent death. After fainting (the male Orlando is a good fainter), and a protracted sleep, he awakens to a brand-new biological destiny.
Even Orlando her/himself doesn't comment upon the change until the 1990s, finally saying, "Because this is England, everyone pretends not to notice."
But issues of sexual identity are only one aspect of the film. Orlando also offers a delicious romp through English society. Orlando remains a constant (despite the gender shift), while the culture surrounding her/him becomes battier with each passing year. (So do the costumes. By the end of the 1700s, Orlando begins looking like a Monty Python revue.) Aside from the film's deft handling of its subject, Orlando has an opulent look.
Orlando is a project that Potter has been dedicated to for some time. Working with "only" a $4 million budget ($4 million would barely pass for lunch money in Hollywood), she's spent the last four years acquiring a large cast, detailed sets and permission for extensive location filming in England, Russia and Uzbekhistan.
Not bad for an experimental filmmaker whose previous credits consist of a few shorts and the quirky feature The Gold Diggers. With Orlando, Potter has placed herself at the forefront of the new British cinema, along with Peter Greenaway and Derek Jarman.
But she's not tried-and-true yet - Potter is hoping that her film version of Woolf's eccentric homage to her lover will find a wide audience. The chances of this happening are excellent. Orlando is one of the most original and engaging visions of the summer. And you don't have to be afraid of the big, bad Woolf to enjoy it.