Orlando: lavish and lovely lightweight film with nothing to say

Sally Potter, “Orlando” (1992)

Based on British writer Virginia Woolfe’s novel “Orlando: a Biography”, this film by Sally Potter is a flimsy work that fails to say anything meaningful about the status of men and women in English and British society over a number of centuries, though I presume that must have been Potter’s intention. The events in the title character’s life take place over a period spanning nearly 400 years, beginning with the twilight days of Queen Elizabeth I (Quentin Crisp), in whose employ Orlando (Tilda Swinton) is a courtier. His youthful alabaster beauty attracts the aged queen’s attention and he briefly becomes her lover. On her deathbed, she endows him and his heirs with considerable wealth – money, a large property with a castle – on the condition that he remain ever young in appearance and spirit. Orlando makes the promise and moreover keeps it: but this promise is to be both his pride and agony.

The film is cut into discrete chapters which structure and simplify Orlando’s presumably complicated life along the themes of death, love, poetry, politics, society, sex and birth (in that order) for the audience’s understanding but which have the effect of distancing and alienating viewers from the character’s experiences and his (later her) responses to them. You’d assume Orlando matures over time and becomes wise and understanding of human foibles but the character remains the same empty person throughout the film; if anything, incidents such as being jilted in love, seeing someone shot dead, undergoing a spontaneous sex change and losing her inheritance (and the adjustments Orlando must have had to make as a result) seem to distance Orlando from humanity rather than encourage her to appreciate the joys, tragedies and niggly irritations that come with being ageless and immortal.

It’s understandable that an early brief affair with a Russian princess, Sasha (Charlotte Valandrey), and harassment from his fiancée make a very young Orlando disillusioned with women and their behaviour. This negative attitude stays with Orlando for the rest of his time as a male, to the extent that he gives his life over to poetry – until his own writing efforts are debunked – and then to politics which enables him to travel to Constantinople as British ambassador to the Ottomans and indulge in the sensual life-style of the Turkish aristocracy. After becoming female himself, Orlando doesn’t appear to reflect on how he has treated women in the past, both as individuals and as a group, even as a group of poets invited to a salon she hosts criticises women and the British courts seize her lands on the legal basis that women don’t have the right to own and manage property. A brief affair with an American idealist and adventurer Shelmerdine (Billy Zane) parallels the affair with Sasha – both lovers are wedded to loyalty to their country or ideals – yet Orlando makes no comparisons between these and with any other liaisons s/he’s had over the years.

Viewers are entitled to know how Orlando copes after being divested of her wealth and lands. Having led a life of luxury and entitlement over two centuries, enjoying travel and literature, how does Orlando survive without servants and having to earn her own living? The film doesn’t say: it simply flips from 1850, when Orlando is informed that she has lost her property, to some time in the 1940’s when she is running across a bomb-scarred landscape. At this point in “Orlando”, Potter could have examined the social and economic status of single women over that period, how it compared to the status of single men then, and what society thought of single women having to work at a time when a woman’s overall social / economic status and reputation were defined by her marital status. It’s likely Orlando had to be governess to children of a wealthy family or a music teacher to survive but viewers unfamiliar with novels like Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” or other literature written during the Victorian period (1837 – 1901) about upper and middle class women can only guess at how Orlando makes her way into the 20th century. There’s also nothing in “Orlando” about how the status of women varied in Britain over 400 years: women who lived in the 1500s – 1600s might have enjoyed a higher social and cultural status than their daughters in succeeding centuries. Nor is there any reference to efforts made by men and women in the late 19th / early 20th centuries to educate girls and women, and to get equal political and economic rights for both sexes. Yet it’s obvious by the end that Orlando has benefitted in some way from the advances made by other people on women’s behalf: she looks well-fed and happy with her lot and so does her child. Why so much of her life after 1850 and losing her wealth is omitted from the film is not just a puzzle, it’s an outrage. The implication that Potter isn’t interested in covering people’s lives if they aren’t wealthy or upper class comes to mind.

Looking more like a showcase of various historical dioramas of English / British culture and how sophisticated and multi-layered it must have been through the ages, with flamboyant costumes, lavish furnishings and the re-enactment of customs appropriate to each historical period, all of which was carefully researched, the film is a gorgeous visual treat. Some scenes are interesting if pretentious static tableaux in themselves and could be comments on the process and narrative function of making films.

The acting is very secondary to the plot and the historical settings with Swinton playing her part very minimally and her acting restricted to wide eyes, quizzical looks at the viewer and quips and asides that aren’t witty, cutting or illuminating: when Orlando comments on a performance of Shakespeare’s “Othello”, the remark is merely that it’s “a terrific play”. Though Swinton may be a good actor, she seems to have been cast for her particular colouring, red hair and alabaster skin, rather than for her talent and experience. Playing Orlando as a male, she is convincing in conveying male mannerisms – there’s a good scene where her actions are mirrored by a male actor and the likeness between the two in their behaviour is very striking – though perhaps, at the risk of parody, Swinton could have exaggerated her actions more in some scenes to be more masculine; likewise, in playing Orlando the woman, she could also have exaggerated some of her feminine behaviour, maybe even indulged in some “feminine wiles” (pleading, making big eyes) in her scenes with Shelmerdine.

Lovely to look at but under its golden sheen, “Orlando” is an empty vessel. I sense that it goes as far as it can in a narrow orbit and that’s it. Because if it did, it might be “controversial” and lots of people would be upset at some real gender politics, especially if and when expressed for comic effect. As a comedy, “Orlando” could have been a perfect vehicle to express uncomfortable opinions, make some observations about society that cut to the bone and question issues we take for granted with grace, wit and style.

(This film is available as part of a 3-DVD set that includes “The Shooting Party” by Alan Bridges and “The Draughtsman’s Contract” by Peter Greenaway from Umbrella Entertainment at www.umbrellaent.com.au.)

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