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Sally Potter’s ‘Orlando’ Is a Gender-Defying Saga That Still Holds Up

Decades later, Tilda Swinton's century-spanning performance remains a unique wonder to behold.



This article originally ran in 2010, when “Orlando” was rereleased.

Decades after its initial theatrical release, “Orlando” has all of its original allure intact, and then some. Sally Potter’s uniquely strange adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel has grown in stature, mainly due to the global stardom of its versatile lead, Tilda Swinton. Potter boldly rejects the prospects of trying to make Swinton seem conventionally masculine, letting the performance transcend gender categories to become a keen meditation on identity.

As the titular poet with the inexplicable ability to live 400 years (first as a man, then a woman) Swinton capitalizes on an androgynous appearance that continues to play a role (albeit to subtler degrees) in her latest work. With her recent performances like “Burn After Reading” and “I Am Love,” Swinton is assertively ladylike in a man’s world. But “Michael Clayton” allowed her to play an icy villain with virtually no overt feminine qualities. Now, Swinton’s self-evident talent has become a kind of elegant fixation for the moviegoing public. “One thing everyone realizes about Swinton [is] she can ‘look’ like so many things,” observes an enthusiastic commenter on a Swinton clip posted to YouTube. “As a result, she is destined to play as many different types of roles as possible — if fate permits it.”

But the switching of gears from project to project demonstrates nothing like the flexibility on display from scene to scene in “Orlando.” As Potter tracks the character from the social limitations of English society in the 1600s to modern times, the only consistent factor is Orlando’s fish-out-of-water expression.

With Aleksei Rodionov’s evocative cinematography creating a storybook feel, Potter’s swift navigation of eras feels at once epic and restrained. The vignette-based structure leads to a movie of moments rather than any sort of conventional narrative rhythm. Whereas David Fincher used CGI to make Brad Pitt age backwards in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and Todd Haynes turned Cate Blanchett into Bob Dylan in “I’m Not There,” Potter simply places Swinton as Swinton in a variety of contexts and lets the varying juxtapositions speak volumes about gender roles throughout history. The outcome is a radical anti-narrative that resists conventional emotional shortcuts.

With Swinton’s intense expressions in constant close-up, the movie plays as Potter’s thesis on male-female relationships–Orlando embodies both–a construct she builds up before making it possible for her star to delicately transcend it. Although none of Potter’s follow-ups have aimed for the same broad conceptual statements (“Rage,” which includes Jude Law as a pompous celebrity in full-drag, comes the closest), she continues to study women forced to adhere to the demands of the world around them. In “The Man Who Cried,” Christina Ricci pursues Johnny Depp as if her life depended on it. (Informed that she must find a rich man to take her from Italy to America, her character probably believes it does.) Potter herself, as the star of “The Tango Lesson,” falls prey to the spell of the dance’s erotic man-woman power dynamic.

Potter’s subsistence as a deeply personal filmmaker was predicted by The New York Times critic Vincent Canby upon the initial release of “Orlando.” Canby wrote that the movie “could well become a classic of a very special kind, not mainstream perhaps, but a model for independent filmmakers who follow their own irrational muses, sometimes to unmourned obscurity, occasionally to glory.”

The only “irrational” aspect of “Orlando” lies with its basic fantasy elements. Everything else has a clear-cut purpose, a relentlessly clever approach to revitalizing the typically austere nature of the period piece. Quentin Crisp, as a pompous Queen Elizabeth I, sets the initial tone by portraying an elderly women without veering into overt parody (“an old queen played by, well, an old queen,” as Ken Hanke describes it in the Mountain Xpress). The deadpan humor comes from the constant reactions to Orlando’s unlikely trajectory, but his/her actual state only elicits contemplation. Surrounded by stuffy British writers in her initial century as a woman, Orlando faces inequality for the first time: “Women have no desires,” one man tells her. “Only affectations.”

Does life improve for Orlando? Yes and no. She is forced into obscurity by a British government that refuses to let her keep her land and determines that she must be legally dead. But she lives into the twentieth century, where she can walk around in pants and ride a motorcycle without eliciting disapproving stares. Her experience gets better with time, but the very notion of outlandishness in the plot of “Orlando” implicates all viewers in the universal tendency to judge others based on appearance. When the character stands buck naked in front of a mirror, carefully evaluating her new female body, she unleashes the movie’s most famous line: “No difference at all,” she says. “Just different sex.” But Orlando’s lengthy final stare into the camera feels like an indictment, or at least a dare to withhold judgement that remains potent to this day.

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