Melancholy and Happiness Are Rarely Separate in ‘Orlando’

With her angular face and wide open eyes, Tilda Swinton is captivating as Orlando in the 1992 Academy Award nominated film. Based upon Virginia Woolf’s eponymous 1928 novel, Orlando is commanded in 1600 to stay forever young by then Queen Elizabeth I (Quentin Crisp). The choice of a male actor to play the Queen foreshadows Orlando’s own complicated relationship to gender.

The four centuries that follow take the audience along with Orlando as the wealthy nobleman attempts to come to terms with his understanding of human nature and relationships with other people. Love, wealth, poetry; life is full of perpetual mysteries. However, Orlando never questions the strangeness of his continuing youth.

Swinton communes with the camera, periodically addressing the audience with her direct stare and honest delivery. The audience has the sense that Orlando has no control, that history is happening to him as he watches in astonishment. Adhering to the queen’s wishes, Orlando lives through four centuries, adjusting to expectations about gender and privilege as he goes.

Swinton’s ethereal paleness and intense features make her easily the center of every scene, no matter what the time frame. Orlando’s flaming red hair is styled according to the character’s gender, so when his gender switches from male to female, it is easy to tell even before a mirror shows Orlando’s new curves. Edgy and chaotic, much like Woolf’s ground-breaking modernist oeuvre, Orlando blurs the boundaries of time, emotion, and self.

Billy Zane is neither believable nor desirable as Orlando’s lover Shelmerdine and his appearance is mercifully brief. As Orlando establishes herself as a sexually liberated English 19th century noblewoman, she doesn’t hesitate to reach out and grab the experience of a passionate affair, short though it is. It is around this time, as Orlando embraces her femininity, that the character finally appears to be finally taking control of her own life. No longer is history happening to her, she is making her mark on the world around her.

Special features include a commentary with director Sally Potter, who explains why Swinton was the perfect choice for this role. Swinton’s previous experience in paying a male character gave her the basis to pull off the body language of a man without resorting to glued on facial hair to cue the audience. Potter points out how each epoch was represented in the film with a focused color palette, from the golds and burgundies of the elderly Queen Elizabeth I at the start of the 17th century, to tan and cream during Orlando’s time in as an ambassador in the Middle East.

There is some wonderful travelogue style footage of the producers, director, and supporting design team, scouting out locations in Russia and Uzbekistan. Attempting to negotiate with local politicians in areas that were still heavily influenced by communism was definitely a challenge. It’s great to get this behind the scenes look, shakily filmed as it is, at the excitement of the crew as they find an incredibly well preserved stone city, Khiva, in Uzbekistan, and drink vodka with the mayor to cement a new friendship.

Footage from the actual film is spliced in, showing how they ultimately used the locations. A shifting political climate in Russia made a heavily scouted location for Orlando’s ancestral home unusable. A second crew member’s travelogue covers some of the actual ten weeks of filming, with short interviews and commentary with cast and crew. Sections of discussions, usually being translated in and out of Russian, help piece together costuming, set design, and the casting of local extras. Together, these two travelogue sections are an extra hour and a half of footage that helps demonstrate the incredible variety of challenges faced during production.

These details really add to the value of this special edition version of the film. A 20-minute press conference from the Venice International Film Festival, and a more focused interview with Potter round out the special features. There are some great questions at the press conference: Swinton is asked how she felt when she was asked to play a lead male role. For anyone interested in period costuming and the back room politics of filming on location, this edition is a stellar way to get deeper into an intense postmodern genderbending story.

You are too serious, Orlando. Yet not serious enough.

Orlando: “Nothing thicker than a knife’s blade separates melancholy from happiness.”

RATING 7 / 10
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