On DVD: Orlando

A deserving but unlikely candidate for a new "special edition" treatment on DVD - but, strangely, not Blu-ray - Sally Potter's 1992 art-house favorite remains one of the most direct and honest statements about gender ever put on film. Its reputation as a film that explores multiple permutations of gender roles throughout history is well-deserved, but Orlando is also remarkable because it positions its challenging themes gently, in visually lovely settings, and without the kind of political dogmatism that one might expect from a film that drives head-on into such sensitive and unsettled thematic territory. Orlando moves swiftly and pauses just long enough on each of the many eras it touches upon to provide us with a tantalizing glimpse into how and why gender roles have changed over time.

Working from a novel by Virginia Woolf, Potter's film casts Tilda Swinton as Orlando, born as a man during England's Elizabethan era to wealth and privilege. A meeting with the elderly Queen Elizabeth (Quentin Crisp) proves fateful when she asks Orlando to never age. Flashing forward to the year 1610, we see Orlando inheriting his parents' huge estate and courting a Russian ambassador's daughter who ultimately rebuffs him. Now convinced that women are untrustworthy and fickle beyond comprehension, the film begins to take 50-year leaps, each segment showing Orlando in a new situation. He tries his hand as a poet, and fails. Next, in 1700, he travels to the east as an ambassador to a Muslim sultan. Upon his return, Orlando discovers he has turned into a woman. He is nonplussed by the transformation, and claims to feel no different.

As a woman in the 19th century, however, Orlando finds herself sued several times over; the chief accusation is that she was always a woman and therefore had no right to inherit property. Orlando weathers these years, however, with the help of an American suitor (Billy Zane) who proves as unreliable as everyone else she's come into contact with throughout her lifetime. Ultimately, Orlando makes it to the end of the 20th century, with a child, and regains her right to own property once again.

Potter's single most brilliant storytelling maneuver is extending the central concept of Woolf's novel, thereby making social change the main concern of the film. Watching the effects of these changes through the eyes of a single character is a powerful conceit, and it highlights the often arbitrary nature of the fluctuation of law, governance, and social norms.

Swinton's performance is remarkably rich, restrained, and commanding. As Orlando the man, she adopts a very male walk and directness of speech. As Orlando the woman, the transformation is not physical but attitudinal; here, Orlando experiences a gradual awakening as to her predicament and the odd poetic justice of having had the tables turned. Given all that she has seen over 400 years, she faces her transformation with equanimity.

Potter's visual achievement in Orlando is as lush and memorable as the best costume drama, making particularly striking use of icy winter scenery during the film's second segment. Footmen move about on skates, conveying their attendees on sledges, and nighttime performances take place in the middle of frozen lakes.

Orlando is a fully-realized film that is never weighed down by potentially unwieldy themes. Sally Potter shows and never tells us what is important and why - and her unconventional narrative is buoyed by Tilda Swinton's brilliant lead performance. 

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