This week I saw the new print of Sally Potter's Orlando, which Sony Pictures Classics is releasing for its... 18th anniversary? Never mind. It doesn't matter. It's always a good time to re-evaluate a good movie. It was first shown in 1992 and released in the United States in the summer of 1993. I remember the night I saw it, but my memory of the movie itself is rather hazy. I remember my assessment was that it was beautifully shot, but rather cold.
Even though I have had 18 years to read the 1928 Virginia Woolf novel upon which the movie is based, I still haven't gotten around to it. But I was nonetheless better able to appreciate the movie this time. The movie has definitely aged well, but also I think I'm personally better able to appreciate it now than I was back then.
Tilda Swinton plays the title character, a young nobleman -- with a slightly androgynous look -- who becomes the favorite of the queen (Quentin Crisp in drag). She orders him to never grow old, and so he does just that. He lives through the next 400 years without aging a day. Instead, at one point, he unexpectedly changes into a woman.
The movie is divided up into several chapters: Death, Love, Poetry, Politics, Society, Sex, and Birth. Each takes place roughly 50 or 100 years apart. Already engaged, Orlando falls passionately in love with the beautiful daughter of a Russian ambassador, Sasha (Charlotte Valandrey), but winds up heartbroken for the next century or so.
He tries writing poetry, and then becomes an ambassador to a desert country; it's Constantinople in the book, but not named in the movie. After a violent uprising there, Orlando sleeps for several days and wakes up a woman. Here, the movie departs from the book, and I shouldn't say anymore except to mention that she meets a dashing adventurer (Billy Zane) and enjoys some long-awaited sugar.
The thing that really strikes me about this movie is that it's an adaptation of a classic novel, and a costume movie, but director Sally Potter does not take the usual, boring route, staying "true" to the novel and making sure the costumes and sets are properly frilly. (See The Young Victoria for the latest, yawn-inducing sample.) It manages to strip the novel down to its essence, make it into cinematic blocks, and bring it up to date.
Moreover, for a movie that takes place over centuries, it feels remarkably compact; it never skims or feels shallow. It spends good energy on the tiny bits of Orlando's life that are relevant. It also has a sense of humor: Orlando occasionally addresses the audience and comments upon the action. And lest we forget that it's absolutely gorgeous. It goes beyond just pretty sets and costumes (though, of course, the sets and costumes were both nominated for Oscars). It has a very deliberate, crystalline cinematic quality to it, like a Kubrick or a Coen Brothers production. It's very specifically planned, and defiantly oddball.
It might have garnered more notice, but it was perhaps a tad ahead of its time, like Sally Potter's later films have been (Yes, in particular). Also, another superb, female-directed costume film, Jane Campion's The Piano, managed to steal away some of the attention from Potter's film. Now Orlando has a chance to bloom again.