I read Virginia Woolf's Orlando some years back now, but have never seen the film until last week, thanks to Artificial Eye's new 2 disc special edition DVD release. The thing that always amazes me about Orlando is that Woolf wrote it in 1928. A feminist classic, what it has to say in terms of identity, sexuality, gender politics and the patriarchal stranglehold on society. It's easy to claim something as ahead of its time, but the sad fact is time has singularly failed to move on far enough since Orlando's publication, as some of these issues remain steadfastly a concern. But it bears repeating that something so progressive was written by a bona fide genius like Woolf in the last century, because many people believe a hack like Steven Moffat blatantly stealing the notion of an immortal who gender swaps for Doctor Who (The Master to the painful Missy) is somehow a revolutionary bold new idea. It most assuredly is not.
Sally Potter's film streamlines and simplifies the source material but manages to retain the spirit well enough and overcomes many obstacles for a novel that was for a long time deemed unfilmable. The humour, how English society refuses to acknowledge the curious nature of Orlando and the numerous looks to camera and asides from Tilda Swinton in the central role, and the magical realism of the piece is very successful and it's actually really refreshing to just have a film say 'this is what it is, accept it' rather than try some convoluted explanation. For example, when Orlando suffers a crisis in masculine identity at the siege of Constantinople and wakes the following day as a woman, standing before the mirror and admiring her new female physique, Swinton's delivery of the line "Same person. No difference at all... just a different sex" is gloriously matter of fact. And there aren't enough words to praise Swinton's performance here; she simply is Woolf's Orlando, both the man and the woman. Her beautifully androgynous, finely sculpted alabaster features are suitably timeless and those dark, darting eyes, flashing with secrets and wit as they turn to address you the viewer, mean that she owns the role. It's nothing short of an iconic, perfect performance. She even makes Sir William of Zane look good, essentially playing a period drama lover's ultimate dream man; Darcy, Rochester and Heathcliff all rolled into one with a knowing entrance. And there's that wonderfully eclectic supporting cast including the likes of Jimmy Somerville as an angel, Dudley Sutton as King James I, and Quentin Crisp as Queen Elizabeth I.
My only issue is perhaps the film lacks an emotional engagement with its audience. Yes, it charms and it amuses and yes it makes you think about gender and sexuality (I especially like how Orlando cannot appreciate his attitude, as a male suitor, towards Princess Sasha until she is on the receiving end of it from Archduke Harry) but it works primarily on a cerebral level only. Nevertheless, the skilful direction, writing and playing is clear for all to see; this was a classy, sophisticated and gloriously '90s production that saw everyone involved singing from the same song sheet. Which reminds me, beautiful score too from Somerville, David Motion and Potter herself.