What to Rent: Orlando

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In which film savant Iggy Cortez tells us how to live forever, and live right.

orlandoSally Potter’s film version of Virginia Woolf’s irreverent biography remains one of the strongest examples of adaptation in recent years, maintaining the spirit of its novelistic predecessor while enriching it with distinctly cinematic qualities. This is a particularly impressive achievement considering the sprawling, almost unfilmable nature of the original story. Orlando (played by the appropriately androgynous Tilda Swinton) is a British male aristocrat in the 16th century who inexplicably lives for four decades and never ages. One evening, he magically swaps genders after falling into a trance in Constantinople and remains a woman to the very end of her chronicled adventures. In her life time, she will tend to Queen Elizabeth I on her death bed, become an ambassador to Charles II, hang out among the literati of 18th century England, fall in love twice, have one daughter and ride around London in a motorcycle after landing a plum book deal.

The film has several negligible flaws that are all but eclipsed by its humor and unforgettable visual impact. Despite Sally Potter’s background in formidably experimental film, Orlando is a highly watchable, reasonably cohesive movie that manages to be both serious and tongue-in-cheek. Potter’s formal experiments – using the elderly, gender ambiguous Quentin Crisp to play the queen, for instance, or breaking down the cinematic fourth wall by making Tilda Swinton talk to the camera – come across as both liberating and fun, rather than self-conscious and smug.

The film obviously has the gender politics of the seventies and eighties looming above it, but Potter’s approach is to explore themes and leave decisions up to her viewer rather than proselytize. Recently the film has also been interpreted as a swan song for avant-garde practice that dominated British film up to late eighties/early nineties, a particularly convincing argument given the entertaining but commercial films that have been coming out of the UK. But although this is very much a movie of its period, much like its protagonist, Potter’s unforgettably stylish film will probably endure well beyond its times. 

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  1. eliza  

    while it may be strange, i think the film and story present explanation for Orlando's long life. doesn't QE1 bestow eternal youth and romance upon him/her?

  2. also  

    billy zane is laughably horrible.

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