Inspired by seeing Tilda Swinton at the BAFTA Film Awards on Sunday, I plucked my copy of Orlando (1992) from the diminishing pile of unwatched Xmas pressies.
For those who don’t know, this satirical feminist parable stars Swinton as the eponymous protagonist, a young, androgynous-looking lord who becomes the “favourite companion” of an aging Queen Elizabeth I (Quentin Crisp), who subsequently bequeaths him a sizable fortune and estate, on the rather existential condition that he never fade, whither or grow old. Orlando obediently honours the Queen’s request, by becoming inexplicably immortal… bless him. However, despite his wealth and status, Orlando does not seem to have a particularly easy time of it: Betrayed by his first love, mocked in print by a poet he patronises (in the monetary sense), and caught in violent crossfire as the British ambassador to Constantinople, he eventually comes to the conclusion that he’s a failure as a man… so he magically reboots himself as a woman, to see if she’ll fare any better. Unfortunately, not. She’s laced into a succession or ridiculously cumbersome gowns, that make her resemble a garish carnival float… she attends a literary salon where her entire gender is dismissed and insulted by the great “intellectuals” and wits of the time… and is eventually evicted from her own home, when the solicitors assert that she had no legal right to inherit the property in the first place! Tripping through the intervening centuries, Orlando eventually finds a modicum of peace and security in the “modern age” as a published author (and mother), no longer constrained by the pesky expectations and prejudices that thwarted her in the old timey days.
Adapted from a famous novel by Virginia Woolf, Orlando isn’t really a narrative film in the conventional sense… it’s more like a series of arty, episodic sketches, divided into distinct, thematic chapters. I must admit, I’d been a little wary of watching it, in case it turned out to be an overly-serious slog, but it’s actually a very funny and fleet-footed film, enlivened considerably by Swinton’s comical performance in the lead. The way Orlando glances at the camera, inviting the audience to share in his/her joy and heartache at various points in her journey is a brilliant device to draw us into his/her confidence, and drum up sympathy for a remarkably endearing, if somewhat unearthly, character.
I also enjoyed the interviews on the second disc, in which writer/director Sally Potter expands on the central “moral” of the story… which is that Orlando doesn’t fail because he/she is defective, but because the game is rigged to begin with! Even today, in our supposedly enlightened times, arbitrary notions of “femininity” and “masculinity” can drive a wedge between men and women, separating us into warring factions, and warping our sense of individuality, while setting impossible standards for us all to live up to. Boo to that!
By a wacky coincidence, this film also featured a Russian princess who spent the majority of her screen-time speaking English or French, just like the characters in yesterday’s subject, Doctor Zhivago! In fact, Charlotte Valandrey, the actress playing ‘Princess Sasha’, was actually born in Paris! It’s almost as if the Universe was trying to tell me something… most likely, “You’re too old and too dim to learn Russian now… try French instead!”