Collected Works: Film
directed by Sally Potter
Lights flicker on a river bank, illuminating lavish floral displays. Torchbearers’ footsteps form a rhythmic counterpoint to creaking wood and splashing oars. The flapping and quacking of geese is hushed by the pure, plaintive voice of a silver-costumed castrato in a serenading boat: ‘Eliza is the fairest Queen.’ The royal vessel glides into view: candlelit, flagged, and garlanded. Queen Elizabeth I sits, enthroned, at the stern. Her pale profile looks aged and curiously androgynous. It is 1600, and she has three years left to live.
The theatrical commotion of the opening Tudor scenes sets the tone for the film that follows, which hurtles through four centuries, tailing its elusive protagonist. The Queen commands Orlando never to ‘wither’ or ‘grow old’, and Orlando dutifully follows her order. The experiences along the way include love during the Great Frost; involuntary transformation into a woman while serving as the English Ambassador to Constantinople; surviving through the suffocation of the Victorian era; and motherhood at the end of the twentieth century.
While streamlining Virginia Woolf’s novel, Sally Potter tweaks its plot to stress sexual ambiguity. Orlando’s sudden transition is the result of a masculinity crisis, while the film stresses her inability to conform to the expectations placed on her as a female: Orlando is denied a male heir and loses her property as a result of her gender. When Orlando’s daughter frolics with a video camera under the same tree where she herself used to write poetry, Potter seems to be subtly encouraging women in film to take inspiration from Woolf’s legacy.
But gender politics and whimsical humour are never treated as mutually exclusive. Orlando’s witty asides to the camera echo Woolf’s direct addresses to the reader, and comically capture the character’s bafflement. By 1992, we have come full circle, and now listen to the falsetto tones of Jimmy Somerville: ‘I am coming, I am coming / Here I am / Neither a woman / Nor a man’. The waterborne castrato has become a disco angel, grooving in the sky, shot by the shaky hand of Orlando’s child.
Words by Emma McKinlay †
More to discover
You can watch the trailer here, see an excerpt here, and read the film's press kit here. Interviews with the director available online include one by Shari Frilot for BOMB Magazine, and another (with Tilda Swinton, who played the title character) by Gerard Raymond for Slant. Dan Kois has written about Swinton's 'nonperformance' for Slate.