Loosely based on a novel by Virginia Wolf, Orlando chronicles 400 years through the eyes of its gender-bending hero/heroine, played by Tilda Swinton. Born in the time of Queen Elizabeth I, Orlando is a young nobleman who becomes the favourite of the aging monarch, and is commanded to never wither and grow old. The film then moves through the four centuries as Orlando falls in love with a Russian princess, tries different careers including a stint as an ambassador to the Middle East, dabbles in poetry… and changes sex midway, awakening one morning to find herself a woman (Orlando’s calm reaction while observing her new body: Same person. No difference at all… just a different sex.)
Tilda Swinton has always been a magnetic actress and Orlando makes the most of her striking, expressive face that looks like an Old Masters portrait turned flesh and blood. In a portrayal that blends emotional intensity and wry detachment, Orlando often turns to look directly into the camera and grace the viewer with an amused or confessional off-hand comment, and Swinton’s penetrating gaze all but bores a hole into you. She is never quite believable as a man, even though the film addresses Orlando’s obvious femininity right in the opening scene, explaining it as a fad of the time among the dandy youth back in 1600. But it never detracts from the power of the performance, and Orlando’s transformation into a woman does feel like a real change, rather than an actress swapping male fashions and powdered wigs for women’s dresses. They are fabulous clothes as well, designed by legendary Sandy Powell who created that to-die-for Cinderella dress in the recent remake.
The movie proceeds as a series of dreamy, often impressionistic vignettes, each with its own title card and theme. While not always coherent they are always lavish and beautiful to look at, and the film as a whole has a light graceful touch. The themes of gender-bending and gender as a performance are reiterated throughout the movie: Queen Elizabeth I is played by a man (Quentin Crisp), there are angelic-voiced male sopranos, and at one point Orlando stops to watch a stage performance with the female lead played by a male actor, as was the custom in the days of Shakespeare. Having a chance to experience life through the lens of both genders, Orlando can lament the cruelty of women in the first half, and, in a dramatic reversal, taste first-hand the limitations and unfairness the society places on the female sex in the second. She finds out for instance that, as a woman in the Victorian era, she can no longer claim the right to own her grand estate.
As a bonus, the movie also has young Billy Zane as Orlando’s hunky Fabio-like love interest. I don’t know what it is about Billy Zane, but I just always find him hilarious to watch onscreen. Maybe it’s his exaggerated cartoonish dark good looks. After watching the movie, I also checked out the bonus video diary that documented director Sally Potter’s efforts to get the film made in Russia and Uzbekistan, at the time still a part of the Soviet Union. The plan eventually fell through with the collapse of the USSR, but they managed to film some wonderful wintry scenes in the Gulf of Finland, and the beautiful historic city of Khiva served as a setting for the Middle East part of the story.