I can’t remember how I stumbled onto this film, exactly.
I know that I saw the trailer on a VHS or DVD of some lesser-known film (Jane Austen related, Shakespeare or some such), but it was years ago. I remember at the time thinking that it might be quite interesting – and possibly quite kinky, depending on the actual subject matter and nature of the title character’s gender, since I knew absolutely nothing about the Virginia Woolf novel upon which the film is based.
Still, nothing ever came of it back then, when I first saw the trailer. Out of sight, out of mind, I suppose. Regardless, I stumbled upon it again recently when YouTube listed a clip from the film as a recommendation. I viewed the clip, then refreshed my memory by re-watching the trailer.
I added it to my Netflix Queue instantly.
When I first watched the trailer, Tilda Swinton’s name meant nothing to me; I had not seen any of her other films. Even now, I’ve only seen one or two, with The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe at the top of the list. Being more familiar with her, however, added to my interest in the film. As did the film’s early setting in Elizabethan England (did someone say The Tudors?).
I still wasn’t sure what to expect, though. From the customer reviews I read on Netflix, the general consensus seemed to be that the film’s main strengths are the visuals, while the story is somewhat lacking, due to its vague plot and confusing narrative style, with the somewhat magical transitions, but little to no explanation about what exactly happens to the main character that allows him/her to live for four hundred years, unchanged (save for gender), and what causes the change in gender to begin with.
I did not read any critics’ reviews and I didn’t even take these reviews too literally, just as something to get a gist for the film’s tone. What I noticed, though, was that no one stated that they out-and-out did NOT like the film.
And neither will I.
I felt that the film was actually quite wonderful. It is something of a mindfuck, and does lack in specific explanation and detail, but I think that’s the magic of it. And the film does hinge on the tone of fantasy, far more than a historical drama, which is, I think, the impression some people got from the trailer.
It is NOT kinky, as I thought it might be; my impression had been that Orlando was either male or female throughout the film, and that he or she pretended to be one or the other at various points in his or her lifespan (which I didn’t really gather stretched over SO much time). The actual story begins with the character, Orlando, as a young man of a very feminine appearance, when he is given a wealth and vast property by Queen Elizabeth, under the promise that Orlando does not grow old.
He falls for a visiting French girl, who is promised to another, but she does not meet him to run away together as he suggests. Heartbroken, he travels abroad and experiences various aspects of life; politics, warfare, poetry, etc.
Just before he returns to England, he wakes up one morning and discovers that he is now a woman. As he – now she – comments, “same person; no difference at all; just a different sex.” She returns to England but finds, as a woman, she no longer has any claim over her property or wealth and the perception of herself among others – men especially – has changed drastically.
The rest of the film deals with love, sex and the shift into the 20th century as she publishes a book regarding her 400 years of life.
According to Director Sally Potter, the film is about the nature of immortality, life, and ultimately asks the questions, “what does it mean to be a man?” and “what does it mean to be a woman?” By experiencing life as both, we see that Orlando is just Orlando, regardless of gender. Potter said that the nature of gender can often be a prison to the soul underneath, the character and the individuality that can get stifled due to one’s sex.
She did say that the film differs in many ways from Woolfe’s original book, but I found that the film seemed cohesive, which is a real feat for adaptations, and in the case of Orlando, it’s a massive time frame, with a lot of detail to get in. Again, not knowing the nature of the original text, it seemed to me that the film’s style, the seamless, indistinct passage of time held a fantastical quality and it is the very thing that makes the story work. As an immortal, Orlando’s experience would be very much like that, subjective and oblivious to specific dates and markers of time.
What’s truly amazing though, is Tilda Swinton’s performance. She is believable as both the male and female versions of Orlando; and, as a man, she did not use any of the conventional methods to which most actresses would have turned; i.e. lowering her voice, stiffening her mannerisms, etc. By not doing these things, it gave her a far more natural demeanor and it helped you fall into the story much more easily.
There are moments where Orlando breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience directly, which, Potter said, was a deliberate attempt to create a similar connection to the audience as Woolf created between herself and readers.
I know that I will have to watch the film many more times. It has a lot of food for thought and leaves you wondering what exactly you just experienced. It is very enthralling, however, the visuals ARE marvelous and, overall, it is a marvelous film.
I highly recommend it.