Sally Potter’s Orlando, in 1992, was a daring and refreshing antidote to the stuffy period costume dramas of the time. Based on Virginia Woolf’s short novel, it follows one character, as a man and as a woman, over a 400 year period, exploring ideas of gender and identity, as well as touching on themes of politics, love, sex and death.
This journey to self-discovery of identity and role and a long search for love takes Orlando from the court of Queen Elizabeth in 1600, to the pursuit of a Russian princess on a frozen Thames, and then on to central Asia as a diplomat for the British government. After a traumatic experience in Asia, Orlando changes sex and experiences romance as a woman in the Victorian era before bringing us up to the present day.
The casting is daring and adventurous, though not always successful. It is hard to accept Tilda Swinton as a young man – she is far too feminine in appearance. The opening narrative tries to persuade us of the idea, saying it was the fashion of the time for young men to appear feminine, but when all the other men in the film sport beards and more masculine characteristics, the point is lost. Nevertheless, if she fails to convince as a male character in appearance, Swinton is very persuasive as an actor delivering smart meaningful little glances and asides to the camera and is really rather fun to watch. The casting of Quentin Crisp as Queen Elizabeth is also a masterstroke, being convincing as well as enforcing very early on the issue of gender roles that will be explored throughout the film.
The photography is wonderful and the set designs and costumes are magnificent (receiving two Oscar nominations in 1992). With its colour-coded periods, well-planned structure and stunning location shooting in Uzbekistan and Russia, it is a sumptuous production all around, but unfortunately a rather empty experience at the same time. It has points to make about gender, identity and the role of women in society, but only in the most superficial manner – that women are not possessions and don’t need men to define them. This may have been an extraordinary idea in Woolf’s time, but it feels rather outmoded today, as does the idea that men and women are essentially the same and that any differences are enforced upon them by the roles that society dictates.
The wider structure and range of subjects tackled are adventurous nonetheless. The film is divided into 7 chapters with the subject headings of Death, Love, Poetry, Politics, Society, Sex and Birth – so it is pretty ambitious, perhaps too ambitious for what they could actually cover in a 90 minute film. The film dared to be unconventional and it did so with great style, but it is never half as clever as it thinks it is.
Considering the amount of attention paid to the packaging of the DVD with a superb and comprehensive set of extras, the picture is rather disappointing. It is dull and slightly faded, looking rather washed-out in places. Blacks are quite flat, lacking detail and the overall image is rather soft. This is disappointing for me particularly, as the principal pleasure in the film is the magnificent photography, compositions and colour schemes. There are frequent dust-spots, large reel-change marks, some other minor print damage and a fair bit of grain, so this is not a pristine print.The scene selection is divided into 9 chapters, following the 7 chapters of the film with chapters for beginning and end titles. In this respect it is the same as Artificial Eye’s release of Potter’s exhilirating and excruciating The Tango Lesson (1997), so it looks like the director likes this kind of structure and the DVD adheres to this division.
The sound comparatively is rather good. The DVD retains the original Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack and it is strong and clear, particularly the magnificent musical score, which is robust and dynamic. If you have never been able to hear the effect of PAL speed-up on a soundtrack before, try listening to Jimmy Somerville (Bronski Beat, The Communards) with a 4% speed-up and raised two-thirds of a semi-tone in pitch. Ouch!
Theatrical trailer (1.16)
The trailer is presented in 4:3. This is the only extra feature on Disc 1, which is a single layer disc. The main and substantial extras are on the dual-layer Disc 2.
Orlando Goes To Russia (33.01)
This is a documentary, presented in video-diary form, by the producer Christopher Sheppard. It records their attempt to make the film a Russian co-production, necessary to cut costs on what is essentially an experimental arthouse film. In a newly reformed Russia, it would also help get their film-industry back on its feet, but with the volatile political situation it all fell through and became a costly false-start. A fascinating documentary and useful insight into the pre-production of a film.
Orlando In Uzbekistan (51.57)
This video-diary by Robert MacNaughton is much more like a traditional making-of documentary. There are interviews with the cast and crew, and it is also a comprehensive look at the whole film-making process from the technical set-ups to the cooking and transport. It also gives a fascinating look at how the script and shooting of Orlando changed through necessity of location choices and through problems with funding. A superb feature.
Jimmy Was An Angel (8.04)
This short film documents the set-up and shooting of the final scene in the film, featuring Jimmy Somerville as an angel.
Press Conference (23.24)
This is a press conference held after the World Premiere of the film at the Venice Film Festival in 1992. Again, very informative and interesting. Most of the questions are primarily directed at Sally Potter, who explains her intentions and methods for making the film very well.
Interview With Sally Potter (13.27)
Also filmed at the 1992 Venice Film Festival, the director talks more about the questions of gender roles, which is the main concern of the film (and the interviewer).
Four superb sets of photographs – a Production Gallery (40), Behind The Scenes (21), Pre-production treatment (21) and Magnum photos (9). Introductions are provided by Sally Potter and descriptions are given for many individual photos.
Selected Scene Commentary (10.16)
Part interview part talk-through of particular scenes, Sally Potter discusses working with Tilda Swinton and her filming techniques. Too brief, but at the same time it doesn’t add much to everything that has already been outlined in the documentaries and interviews.
Biographies and filmographies are provided for Tilda Swinton and Sally Potter, including the director’s choreography and theatre work.
Orlando takes itself and Virginia Woolf’s work a little too seriously at times and is probably a little over-ambitious about what it could achieve on-screen, but it is nevertheless a beautifully made film with some memorable scenes, great photography and some clever casting. The extra material on the DVD is some of the best I have seen for any film, which only makes the failings of the actual film print all the more disappointing.