Orlando (1992)

Sally Potter | 1hr 34min

Orlando slips through identities with nonchalant grace, about as effortlessly as Sally Potter flits through the centuries that her narrative is set over. Time barely leaves a scratch on our young protagonist, and so rather than marking years solely with numbers, themes are instead embedded in chapter titles as a means to separate one period of Orlando’s life from the next. “1600 Death” delivers a lesson in mortality with the passing of Queen Elizabeth I. “1650 Poetry” sees a blossoming interest in the writing of sonnets and verses. “1750 Society” is the period within which they fully comprehend the gendered politics of human civilisation, when they suddenly transform from a man into a woman. While it is a change that causes great confusion within the rigid boundaries of English society, Orlando’s reception of it goes by with little fanfare.

“Same person, no difference at all. Just a different sex.”

Tilda Swinton’s androgynous presentation has never been put to as brilliant use as it is here, playing both male and female identities of a single character.

It isn’t hard to see why this particular Virginia Woolf novel was considered nearly impossible to adapt to the screen. The difficulty isn’t just in the need for intricate and elaborate production design that shifts dramatically with each new chapter, but also in the lead actor’s ability and confidence to convincingly pull off the many layers of Orlando’s characterisation, including that pivotal sex change. Potter accomplishes the former with magnificent flair, collaborating with costume designer Sandy Powell to curate the deep, royal reds of Queen Elizabeth I’s bejewelled court, as well as the many colours of Orlando’s dynamic self-expression. The achievement of the latter though belongs largely to Tilda Swinton, whose striking androgynous style has rarely found a better fit than it does here.

Potter curates superb production design in each era, starting here in Queen Elizabeth I’s court with the rich red and gold colour palette, and crowding out the mise-en-scène with flowers and candles.
Even without relying on the period decor Potter crafts some some stunning compositions, here emphasising the blacks and whites of Queen Elizabeth’s funeral.
The use of colours always feels like an expression of Orlando’s shifting identity through the decades and centuries.

It is a wonder why so many other directors she has worked with haven’t recognised the great potential of close-ups in capturing her sharp facial features as well as Potter does here, as she always seems to find the most perfect meld of lighting, angles, and framing to form a direct connection between Swinton’s face and the camera. Every time she whips her eyes towards us, the impact is electrifying, as with each new incarnation there is a change in her iris colour that pierces the fourth wall with blues, ambers, browns, and greens. This fixation on Orlando’s physical appearance continues to extend to the rest of their body as well, as in one scene Potter’s camera traces the outline of their naked legs, hips, and torso in tight close-up against a black background, studying each curve with utter enthralment, as if trying to decipher the key to their eternal youth.

Swinton’s face seems meant for Potter’s close-ups, always using the lighting and framing to emphasise her striking eye colours.

Perhaps we might find more answers in Orlando’s direct addresses to the audience though, which contribute addendums to their own voiceover, revealing a person fully conscious of their unique place in history, though lacking any desire to assert themselves as anything more than an open-minded human. They move through time like an embodiment of time itself, though one that is trapped in a human body and subject to the petty judgements of society.

Orlando’s journey through the film is largely defined by its restlessness and acceptance of an unpredictable future, forever living like a young person with their whole life ahead of them, and Potter’s energetic synth score blends tremendously with this characterisation, invitingly beckoning them into the future. As they run into a magnificent hedge maze after rejecting a proposal, her music propels them down its narrow, green trails, this set piece becoming a tremendous visual metaphor of their navigation through the complicated labyrinth of human history. They disappear around corners and into clouds of fog with great urgency, trying to find an exit, but even in the frustratingly limited options laid out for them there is a still joyous freedom in the ability to choose their own path. Orlando may be a being of fluidity with an indestructible youth and vigour, and yet through the ever-shifting annals of human history that Potter so smoothly flips through, they are also ironically the only constant.

A labyrinth of endless corners and thick fog, an apt visual metaphor for Orlando’s navigation through human history if there ever was one.

Orlando is currently available to stream on Stan and Mubi.

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