Film review by Jason Day of Orlando, the period drama about a Tudor-era boy who has eternal youth and his experiences at various points in English history. Starring Tilda Swinton and Billy Zane. Directed by Sally Potter.
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At the end of the Tudor period, privileged but lonely Lord Orlando (Tilda Swinton) has aspirations to be a poet. Visiting his father’s country pile, Queen Elizabeth I (Quentin Crisp) is taken with him, makes him her favourite and bestows honours on him, including a long, youthful life.
In search of personal contentment and artistic fulfilment, Orlando wanders through time and eventually becomes a woman, facing the same social prejudices he expressed years before.
Review, by @Reelreviewer
No difference at all. Just a different sex
Back in the day, when I was a greasy, spotty student trudging down College Road in Stoke-on-Trent, I actually managed once to stay awake in the slumber inducing film lecture theatre.
The module I had elected to take was called Feminist Counter Cinema and there had been the usual glut of experimental, arthouse fare but the final screenings covered ‘breakout’ feminist cinema, those ‘right on’ movies that busted out into the public consciousness and earned more than just a few quid at flea pit movie houses.
The name of the film was Orlando and it’s just as captivating and beguiling as it was when I first saw it.
I’ll leave the feminist and sexual identity discussion of the movie to one side, but suffice to say its message that men and women are essentially the same bar one key difference, men have always generally had more rights and freedom whatever period of time we talk about.
That we are still, for instance, fighting for equal pay and in some parts of the world have far fewer rights than men, makes Orlando just as relevant.
First and foremost – and this is also how my lecturer saw it – Orlando is a ravishing thing to look at with jolting tonal and colour contrasts and to make you feel the difference between each time jump.
And I highlight the word feel because the look of the film is so detailed and vibrant, it is practically tactile. And you can’t miss the meaning in these scenes, thanks to the huge Brechtian titles which neatly surmise Orlando’s half milennia on the road to self actualisation (Death. Love. Poetry. Politics. Society. Sex. Birth)
So we have deep, rich, warm, Christmas reds, yellows, honey and oranges for the Elizabethan scenes.
During the Constantinople sequence, Potter and her production team rip open the curtains and let the bright Arabic sun stream in; the film’s most gorgeous moment is here. Orlando wakes after another long sleep and washes, the morning light catching a billion dust particles that flit around. This blissfully cosmic image heralds Orlando’s rebirth as a woman, with Swinton seen in all her glory.
Back in England time has moved on to the dainty, meringue and ice cream pastels of 18th century society. Despite the luscious colour schemes, Orlando finds herself artfully ridiculed by famous authors and wits, one of whom notes: “The lady is aflame…and silent! Perfect!”
Swinton, the most androgynous of actors, replete with some very amusing asides to the camera, is strangely on surer ground as the female Orlando but whatever sex, she is always someone to watch.
Crisp, in a touching and sensitive performance, plays a weary, near-the-end Queen Bess, no longer merry she looks and sounds like a spectral presence imparting words of wisdom to her new favourite as if they were portents of doom.
Keep your eyes peeled for rapid cameos from then cinematic unknowns Simon Russell Beale, Toby Jones, Jimmy Summerville who sings and Toby Stephens playing Othello.
Swinton’s real-life niece Jessica plays her daughter in the modern conclusion.
Cast & credits
Director: Sally Potter. 1 hr 34 min/94 min. Adventure Pictures/Lenfilm Studio/Mikado Film/Rio/Sigma Film Productions/British Screen Productions. (PG)
Producers: Christopher Sheppard.
Writer: Sally Potter.
Camera: Aleksey Rodionov.
Music: David Motion, Sally Potter.
Sets: Ben van Os, Jan Roelfs.
Tilda Swinton, Billy Zane, John Wood, Heathcote Williams, Charlotte Valendrey, Lothaire Bluteau, Quentin Crisp, Dudley Sutton, Jimmy Somerville, Simon Russell Beale, Toby Stephens, Toby Jones, Jessica Swinton.