VENICE–“Orlando” triumphantly overcomes the pitfalls of the European co-production format and provides exciting and wonderfully witty entertainment for the discriminating crowd. Glorious settings and costumes, and a socko performance from Tilda Swinton in the title role, ensure that this inventive adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel will be an international art-house fave.
Woolf’s novel, which was inspired by her friendship with the aristocratic Vita Sackville-West, was written immediately after “To the Lighthouse,” and is structured around the intriguing notion of a character who has lived for 400 years, changing sex in the course of time.
Through the character of Orlando, a youth who, in 1600, becomes the favorite of the aging Queen Elizabeth I and lives to tell the tale well into the 20th century, Woolf was able to explore with great wit the role of women in British society over the ages.
Though she is really too feminine to pass for a man in the first half of the film, Tilda Swinton is, in every other respect, extraordinary as Orlando, who frequently, in witty asides to the camera, takes the audience into his/her confidence.
Much of the credit for the success of this difficult material must go to writer-director Sally Powell, who battled for several years to get the project off the ground (the credits acknowledge the support she received from the late Michael Powell).
Logistically, the film looks rich and expensive, with locations such as St. Petersburg, standing in for medieval London in winter, and Uzbekistan, as the Middle Eastern country where Orlando, anguished after he is jilted by a beautiful Russian woman, spends 10 years as British ambassador at the court of the Khan (Lothaire Bluteau).
After this experience, the ageless Orlando becomes a woman, which, as Swinton says to the camera, makes “no difference at all–just a different sex.” But as a woman, Orlando is no longer entitled to her title and estates under English law, nor is she taken seriously by the great literary figures of the day.
She discovers sex in 1850 in the arms of an American adventurer (Billy Zane) and as a result becomes pregnant; but, at the end of the film, set in present-day London, her child is still seen to be young. Potter adds some contemporary irony in a scene in which a disdainful male publisher–of course–dismisses the manuscript she has written about her life.
More than a feminist tract, pic is a sumptuous production with first-class production design by Ben van Os and Jan Roelfs, and gorgeous costumes by Sandy Powell. Peter Greenaway (especially “The Draughtman’s Contract”) is evoked at times, as is Derek Jarman, thanks to the casting of Swinton, but Potter has created a memorable film all her own.
The cast is uniformly strong, with Zane very effective as the manly American and Quentin Crisp looking exactly right as the aging Queen Elizabeth I. Scenes of London in the grip of freezing winter are most beautiful.
Music is well used, with some clever mock-medieval songs written by Potter herself. Herve Schneid’s editing has brought the film in at a very sharp 93 minutes.
Woolf’s distinctive literary style has proved daunting for filmmakers over the years, but this is by far the best screen adaptation of her work, and a credit to all concerned.