Monday, August 4, 2014

Reeling Backward: "Orlando" (1992)

"Orlando" has sometimes been described as a surrealist film, but I don't think that's accurate. It is certainly fanciful, relating the tale of Virginia Woolf's novel about the titular character, who lives hundreds of years as both a man and woman. And it ignores a lot of conventional storytelling tropes, such as having the main character (Tilda Swinton, in her breakout role) interrupt the goings-on to stare at the camera and offer a quip or two about the proceedings.

Obviously, when you're dealing with a character who lives for centuries and switches genders, we're well outside the rigid paths of realism. But just because something isn't plausible doesn't mean it can't make good fodder for important ideas and stories.

Writer/director Sally Potter ("Ginger & Rosa") liberally adapts Woolf's book, changing around or eliminating much of the plot. For instance, Shelmerdine (Billy Zane) is a pretty minor character in the movie, showing up to have a torrid affair with the female Orlando and then departing for the Americas and a life of adventure. The book version is a merchant marine captain who becomes her husband.

Similarly, a recurring theme in the second half of the film, after Lord Orlando becomes Lady, are various court challenges to her ownership of her mansion and estate, since it was bequeathed to his male version by Queen Elizabeth I (played by Quentin Crisp in a further play on gender-bending). She eventually loses her property in the movie, but wins the judicial contest in the book.

(Her opponents' legal reasoning is novel. It's not so much about the notion that women aren't allowed to own property, but the fact that since she used to be a man, she is no longer the person who was bequeathed to. Also, since at the start of the case Orlando is already about 200 years old, she must be presumed to be deceased. Although the court would seem to concede this latter point as it spends decades suing a dead person.)

I found the movie delightful and visually sumptuous, if a bit on the light side thematically. At 93 minutes, it's one of those rare films you wish would tarry longer. Potter doesn't appear to be striving for a grand statement on the differences between genders or the subjugation of women. She's simply presenting a what-if tale about how life could be if one walked in Orlando's boots -- or high heels, later on.

It's a graceful rumination on the nature of humanity -- what it's like to be born a man, or a woman, noble or not, rich man or pauper, in 1600 or the 20th century. Orlando him/herself remains something of a cypher, a tourist in his/her own life who reacts to everything that is happening. Through Swinton's mercurial performance, we sense goodness in Orlando, if not exactly a searching intelligence.

The story proceeds in time breaks of roughly 50 years apiece, with each chapter given its own title: Love, Politics, Poetry, etc. The poetry section is rather brief, depicting Orlando as a serious if ungifted student of prose.

At one point he engages with a celebrated poet (Heathcote Williams) he admires, and convinces him to read some of Orlando's own, awful poems. When he later learns that the poet wrote witheringly about him, Orlando orders the parchment buried under a large pile of manure -- but honors his promise to give the man an annual stipend of £300 a year -- "paid quarterly."

The gender switch is handled almost dismissively. While serving as an ambassador for the Crown in the Middle East, Orlando is overcome with emotion during a battle and flees. Sleeping for days at a time, he awakes to look in the mirror and find the nude body of a woman. "Exactly the same!" she declares, and moves on with her new life with little change, except for some necessary sartorial choices.

The costumes and sets are marvelous in depicting the Elizabethan period on up, from 1600 to 1992. Both earned well-deserved Academy Award nominations.

I've been meaning to see "Orlando" for years, and glad I finally got around to it.

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