Orlando - Sally Potter’s adaptation of the Virginia Woolf novel of the same name - is a rather curious and frustrating enigma. It’s a film which flatters to deceive, teasing the viewer with a fluttering of aesthetically-pleasing eyelids before dashing off in pursuit of another suitor.

The Orlando (Tilda Swinton) in question begins the film as a young man living in a grand country estate, which he is promised will be bequeathed to him by Queen Elizabeth - so long as he stays young forever and doesn’t grow old and ‘wither’. The young nobleman agrees, somehow setting in motion an ageless progression through the next four centuries.

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Rather than taking in era-defining historical events in a Forrest Gump style, Orlando’s half-arsed waft through the decades takes him on a more personal and emotional journey. He is disappointed in love, before he finds himself useless in employment as a foreign ambassador. At this discovery of his apparent worthlessness after a diplomatic fracas in which he fails a test of masculinity, he wakes up the next day as a woman.

On waking as a woman, Swinton turns to face the camera (in a recurring and rather annoying affectation) to declare that she is “exactly the same”. She may feel exactly the same, yet a still puritanical British society is not quite so sure about that. As a woman, Orlando finds life rather more troublesome.

This arrives just after the half-way point in a film which quickly descends from breezy intrigue to insipid indifference, yet it does nothing to delve any deeper into the shallow surface of Orlando’s existence. The film is constantly teasing out the relationship between sex and gender – and the idea that we are all of us both men and women. And perhaps neither, given the constricting definitions of these appointed roles.

However, it never seems to go anywhere with this. Relationships and revelations are too quickly swept aside and the issue of Orlando’s ever-lasting existence is never given enough context either. Where Dorian Gray’s pursuit of eternal youth and beauty came at the price of a decaying soul, we never get any sense that the passing of time or the new-found difficulties that Orlando faces after a sex-swap have any real emotional resonance beneath the calm bemusement of Tilda Swinton’s portrayal.

That’s no criticism of Swinton, who would seem only to be fulfilling the director’s wishes in her performance. However, the picture makes a 90-minute run-time feel like a stretch in solitary, as any hint of narrative or character progression is discarded as quickly as the potential arises. Yes, it looks rather ravishing - Potter clearly having a fine compositional eye and utilising camera movement to add to the feeling of wit and whimsy – but that can only carry a film so far.

It all feels a bit incidental. Do we really care that Orlando finds some sort of peace by the end of the film? I certainly didn’t. Whether this is a faithful or otherwise adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s book I am not at liberty to say, having not read it. After watching the film, I won’t be in a hurry to either.

Reviewed on: 06 Aug 2012
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Young nobleman Orlando is commanded by Queen Elizabeth I to stay forever young. Miraculously, he does just that...
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Director: Sally Potter

Writer: Sally Potter, Virginia Woolf

Starring: Tilda Swinton, Billy Zane and Quentin Crisp.

Year: 1992

Runtime: 94 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: UK, Russia, France, Italy, Netherlands

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