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UK/Russia 1992
Directed by
Sally Potter
90 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars


Sally Potter's gorgeous-looking interpretation of Virginia Woolf's 1928 novel (which was dedicated to and inspired by Vita Sackville-West) tells the story of Orlando (Tilda Swinton) from her beginnings in the court of Queen Elizabeth I (Quentin Crisp) through his/her 400 year life until his incarnation as a writer in 20th century London.

The film spends most of its time in the 1600s, gradually picking up speed until it whips through the last couple of centuries at breakneck speed. A good part of this seems to amounts to little more than a Derek Jarman-cum-Peter Greenway-ish indulgence in lavish visuals with Swinton in ever-more over-the-top costumes, as Orlando woos a Russian ambassador's daughter (Charlotte Valandrey), becomes an ambassador to a Middle Eastern country where he miraculously becomes a woman and returns to England where she is faced with disinheritance because of her gender trans-substantiation.

Up to this time the film is sustained by its wonderful visuals, although at times the script is heavy-handed in its oracular pronouncements and we could probably have done without the trendy intermittent address by Orlando to the camera. More importantly Swinton makes for a very poor man thus undermining any credibility that is supposed to accrue from Orlando’s socially-codified gender attribution (Crisp on the other hand is wonderfully believable as the decrepit Queen Liz). Thereafter and with the introduction of Billy Zane as Orlando's lover the narrative become too schematic to satisfy especially as what had gone before was so well staged.

Nevertheless with wonderful cinematography by Alexei Rodionov and production design to match from Ben Van Os, along with an excellent score, co-written by Potter and David Motion, although being far from a crowd-pleaser as a statement in visual style Orlando is a small treasure.




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