After 31 years, Sally Potter’s Orlando is re-released, a dreamy, swoony reverie of shapeshifting sexual identity; “gender” isn’t the word used. It is the film that confirmed Tilda Swinton in the arthouse-icon status that Derek Jarman had given her (Hollywood prestige was to come eight years later, in Danny Boyle’s The Beach). The movie concludes with a rapturous closeup on Swinton’s face: sublime, seraphic, enigmatic, while Jimmy Somerville serenades her from heaven, a cheeky falsetto cherub fluttering in the sky.
Potter adapted the 1928 novel by Virginia Woolf, a fantasy adventure inspired by her love affair with Vita Sackville-West; it was also inspired by Woolf’s slightly snobbish reverence for Sackville-West’s centuries-spanning aristocratic genealogy, and by their deliciously exciting patrician-bohemian disregard for bourgeois hetero-normality. With this film, Potter single-handedly upgraded this book from mere jeu d’ésprit, giving it literary canonical status and making it a key text for gender studies. She also established a tradition of casting a female actor rather than a male in the lead in future adaptations – although Emma Corrin, starring in the recent London West End stage revival, is non-binary.
Orlando is a pulchritudinous young courtier whose strange destiny is to live in a state of permanent youth and androgynous beauty from the 16th to the 20th century (and presumably beyond). As a favourite of Elizabeth I (a wittily cast Quentin Crisp), Orlando acquires a landed estate and income and assumes a prestigious social role under James I (Dudley Sutton); he falls in love with a Russian noblewoman, Princess Sasha (Charlotte Valandrey). But, jilted by her and offended by the mediocre literary hack Nick Greene (Heathcote Williams) who mocks his verses, Orlando takes a diplomatic role as ambassador to the Ottoman empire, where he is to metamorphose into a woman. She comes home to find that she is disinherited, but has a Victorian-era romance with American adventurer Shelmerdine, played by a somewhat smirking Billy Zane. Orlando carries on into the 20th century (shown in one frankly rather precious scene striding across a first world war battlefield), and finally in the 1990s delivering her autobiography to a shallow, commercially obsessed publisher (played again by Williams).
This is an exotically theatrical and mannered film, with something of the court masque in each scene; it is surely inspired, for good or ill, by Peter Greenaway, and there is also a rather Michael Nyman-esque score. It may look dated occasionally, but Swinton’s fourth-wall breaks to camera have something of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag about them. We also get a richly talented cast, with the young Simon Russell Beale, Toby Jones and Toby Stephens along for the ride in minor roles.
In a way, this is a film by aesthetes, for aesthetes, and a film which muses and flirts with the ideas of poetry and sensuality – although poetry itself, and Orlando’s supposed vocation as a poet, is not overwhelmingly important. (She actually ends up writing prose.) And Orlando’s conversion from male to female interestingly does not especially change her personality. I’ve never been sure exactly how profound this movie is, and it sometimes teeters on the edge of complacency, but it has a trance-inducing strangeness and Swinton is insouciantly magnetic at all times.