Sally Potter’s 1992 adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s gender bender 1928 literary classic, Orlando: A Biography, is a sumptuous affair, and certainly looks more that it cost (some £4m), making wondrous use of its locations and giving Tilda Swinton her breakout role.
Swinton is in every shot and makes the film her own. Her naturally androgynous looks are perfect for the role of a man whose quest for love and freedom spans 400 years and sees him change sex in the process. Swinton’s Orlando starts off as a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I (played here by Quentin Crisp, who looks the spitting image of the royal in her latter years), who bequeaths the youth an inheritance on the condition that he never fades.
Two centuries later, Orlando journeys to Constantinople and is transformed into a woman following a night of murderous riots. Returning to England, Orlando discovers that, as a woman, she has no claim on the estate and so spends the next 200 years in litigation, falling in love, and becoming a mother, until finally arriving in the present day where her true freedom is found (by turning her story into a novel).
Potter’s adaptation is certainly brave, but the film’s gender themes are slightly obscured by the striking visuals, which are extraordinary – in particular the scenes shot in the desert (Khiva, Uzbekistan) and on Orlando’s English estate (Hatfield House in Hertfordshire).
The extras on this Artificial Eye release should be made compulsory viewing on film studies courses as they give a detailed account of the difficulties that the filmmakers faced to achieve their vision – not help by the fact that Perestroika was going into meltdown and much of the film relied on assistance from within the Soviet Union.