Arguably it is stretching the bounds of this column to claim Orlando, the eponymous protagonist of Sally Potter’s 1992 film, as a Heroine of Cinema. After all, the character not only begins life, but spends several hundred years as a biological man. However, the previous sentence may alert you to the fact that Orlando is no ordinary character, and gender non-conformity notwithstanding, there is no doubting his / her status as one of modern cinema’s most unique and compelling feminist creations.
What else would you expect from the combined invention of Virginia Woolf, Sally Potter and Tilda Swinton? The three women form a formidable, century-spanning triumvirate – the iconic author, the vigorously unique auteur and the acclaimed, rule-bending actress. Sally Potter’s film is an adaptation of Woolf’s 1928 novel about the elusive Orlando, who lives eternally and switches between genders at will. Tilda Swinton is an actress described as androgynous with predictable frequency, but there is nothing very masculine about her appearance, and she does not much resemble a man for the part of the film in which Orlando is male. However, this serves as a perfect demonstration of Woolf’s apparent thesis that men do not so much act as men but play male roles – that is to say, perform according to the expectations of society and not biology.
Sally Potter has spoken of how, in adapting Woolf’s book, she felt that the cinematic form required more pragmatic reasons for the changes that occur to Orlando without explanation in the novel. Thus his gender changes only once, after he refuses to conform to what is expected of him as a man – namely to kill at war. Up to this point, Swinton’s clear female status has provided some satirical bite as the male Orlando bemoans the treachery of women, or proclaims “A man must follow his heart”. In league with the audience – Swinton's character addresses us directly – Orlando is well aware of the flimsiness of social constructs and stereotypes of gender.
Once a woman, Orlando’s circumstances change quite dramatically. Though still a noble, when granted an audience with the literary luminaries of her day, including Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope, she is forced to endure such postulations as “the intellect is a solitary place and therefore quite unsuitable a terrain for females”, and “most women have no characters at all”. It is not long before she loses her property and her titles, as society deems only appropriate given her change in gender. Virginia Woolf was writing in a time when the status quo for women must have been deeply depressing for someone of her intellect. Despite this, the great inspiration of Orlando is that it is not a vehicle for bashing the patriarchy, but rather a delicate and intoxicating ode to the fluidity of gender identity. Such an approach is perfectly suited to the cinema screen, and perfectly captured by Potter and Swinton.
While the male and female Orlandos quickly attribute the failure of their romances to the treachery of women and the treachery of men, respectively, neither romance appears on screen as a simple gender binary. As we watch male Orlando’s dalliance with the Russian enchantress Sasha, it hardly goes amiss that what we are actually watching is two women kiss. Paradoxically, as the female Orlando is seduced by the flowing locks and fluttering eyelashes of Shelmerdine, it is scarcely out of our minds that the object of Shelmerdine’s seduction has been held before our eyes for the past hour as a man. This sense culminates in the knowing conversation conducted between Orlando and Shelmerdine whilst entwined in each other’s arms. It is such a perfect crystallisation of Woolf’s politics and poetry that it is worth repeating here:
Orlando: If I were a man…
Orlando: I might choose not to risk my life for an uncertain cause. I might think that freedom won by death is not worth having. In fact…
Shelmerdine: You might choose not to be a real man at all. Say, if I were a woman…
Shelmerdine: I might choose not to sacrifice my life caring for my children, nor my children’s children, not to drown anonymously in the milk of female kindness, but instead, say, to go abroad. Would I then be…
Orlando: A real woman?
The cumulative effect is that all gender labels appear dubious and impermanent, and this is hardly an accident. At the film’s end, Potter diverges from Woolf’s novel in the extent of Orlando’s material losses, but in doing so reaches a more optimistic conclusion. By losing the property, titles and status granted to her as a man, Orlando finally finds the peace that has previous eluded her. In doing so, the film seems equally concerned with the liberation of both men and women from the restrictions that society imposes on them.
However, such theoretical, academic statements do a disservice to a film which channels the spirit of Woolf’s message through its lyrical, mystical tone as much as its content. Tilda Swinton’s performance is not masterful in the conventional sense – it is an oddity, to be sure – but it fits the mood perfectly, never trying too hard to win our hearts or sell us on its blatant absurdities. The film is much the better for it. Absurdly beautiful and consistently dreamlike, “Orlando”’s passionate diatribe on gender identity is so much more powerful and coherent for remaining, in some sense, elusive.