Friday, December 12, 2008

"Orlando" Tilda Swinton

Sally Potter's 1992 film, Orlando, based on the roman à clef by Virginia Woolfe, is a haunting and visually stunning work of art that combines elements of fantasy, period piece and social commentary to make a satisfying whole. The actress Tilda Swinton, perhaps most widely known for her role as the Ice Queen Jadis in the movie version of C. S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, defines the film which is a lengthy study of the androgynous immortal British nobleman she portrays. Billy Zane plays Orlando's 19th century lover and Quentin Crisp, author of The Naked Civil Servant, then aged 83, plays the elderly Queen Elizabeth I.

While certainly more a cerebral excercise than an action flick, the story maintains interest with several short parts set in ages from the Sixteenth to the Twentieth Centuries. Orlando, born a nobleman in Tudor England, becomes a paramour of the aging queen who grants him an estate with the proviso that he not fade, that Orlando not age. Orlando complies, falling into a deathlike sleep every few decades to awaken rejuvenated, and, after one transformation, as a woman. With gay icon Quenton Crisp playing Elizabeth and Swinton playing a person who changes gender, this has been seen as a gay film. But Crisp simply plays Elizabeth as Elizabeth, with no camp and no agenda. Orlando's sex change is treated matter-of-factly and Orlando's love interests are heterosexual to his or her gender of the moment. Any attempt to shoe-horn this timeless film into a serving a parochial modern agenda is a disservice to it and its audience.

Filmed in England and Khiva, Uzbekistan (as a stand in for Constantinople) the film is full of atmosphere. Eschewing the 'Technicolor' cinematography of such films as Elizabeth, with Cate Blanchette, or The Other Boleyn Girl, with Scarlet Johanssen, with their spectra of saturated colors and casts chosen in part for their Hollywood good looks, director Sally Potter shrewdly relies on simple and authentic settings and on actors with character to achieve its visual effect. Romantic touches are achieved through intelligent direction, not bootleg shortcuts.

Orlando, based in part on the life of Vita Sackville West, (portrait by Laszlo) is considered Woolfe's most accessible novel and this adaptation admirably translates her literature to the screen. With its sly wit, subtle humor, gothic beauty, intelligent writing, interesting cast, charming settings and thought-provoking story, the film entertains successfully on many levels. It is available for purchase or rental. Here is the studio trailer from YouTube:

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