The Unbearable Immortality of Being?
This is an important early movie for both Sally Potter (the director) and Tilda Swinton (the lead). As such, it suffers from mistakes of the unexperienced. The film should not be discarded because it is flawed, rather, watched and enjoyed for the things it gets right.
Potter has difficult material - Orlando was written by Virginia Woolf and although talented as an author, very few screenplays have figured out how to get it right. Woolf's material is an interesting narrative that flows from commentary to insight to seemingly private conversations with the reader. This self aware narrative can only be translated into film as the lead conversing directly with the camera. This works sometimes and not others. In one story Orlando says directly to the camera, "I think I am going to faint, I've never felt better in my life." It's a little disruptive in this scene and doesn't serve much purpose. It could have been conveyed non verbally or not even spoken (even in voiceover).
The other difficult part of the material is the lead (Orlando) is an immortal creature without gender. She lives through centuries and changes from male to female. Tilda Swinton tries hard to make this work, but she is far more convincing in the female than she is in the male. A suitor that is aware of her gender ambiguity says, "Whether you are male or female, you always will be the perfection of your sex."
Woolf's book surely seems to be a larger scale political commentary, but the movie can't take on all of the subtlety. We are along for the ride. The best we get is when Orlando says, "The spirit of this century has finally broken me," after receiving notification that her gender as a woman means she can no longer own the property given to her during Queen Elizabeth's reign, disputed during Queen Anne's, and decreed invalid during Queen Victoria's age.
Potter chooses to use a chapter like metaphor to separate the film into both years and topics. It begins in the 1600 and runs through 1950+. The topics are love, politics, poetry, sex, and war.
There are so many great vignettes in this movie - Orlando running through a garden maze and changing through another 50 years by changing hair styles and costumes. Another great scene is in Khiva, Uzebekhistan when the Royal England try to keep their appearances during a frozen winter. The waiters carrying huge domed platters and ice skating in congo line is very clever.
I am thankful for technicolor or whichever film technique was used to generate this lush movie. I understand that decorations and sets cannot make a movie. However, without color, much of this film would be wasted. It's important to see the vividness of the Britsh wardrobe compared to everyone else - Muscovites or pre-Raj India. It makes the film strikingly visceral.
Ultimately, Potter and Swinton are not able to leave a lasting message woven through the various scenes. This is a little disappointing.
Look for Jimmy Sommerville to open and close the movie and look for Tilda's real world daughter to play the same role in the movie.
Full profile for Orlando
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