Orlando Sally Potter (UK 1992) Tilda Swinton
Viewed Star and Shadow Cinema
Newcastle; ticket: open free screening
Sally Potter’s movie is an admix of sumptuous visuals allied to content that becomes increasingly weak and uncertain of itself. Not unlike some late career David Lean film such as Zhivago or Ryan’s Daughter: spectacular exterior shell, flabby interior. But whilst Lean was a hand on heart patriot increasingly distanced from the political lean of the times, Potter is a feminist with an agenda to sow the seeds of her perspective. Orlando in this respect seems a movie caught between divergent necessities: to be faithful to the original satire of Virginia Woolf’s novel; to be true to her own muse. In film, as many other directors have shown, whatever the production values, compromised intentions lead to dull film experience.
Virginia Woolf’s writing comprising a delicate tracery of words, folds into the epochs through which Orlando passes, gender nuanced observations and feelings. What in writing is playful and vibrant is most successfully carried off by Potter in her visuals. The opening Elizabethan androgynous epoch where youthful Orlando is chosen to serve Quentin Crisp’s wonderfully realised velvet Queen Elizabeth l. The festivities enjoyed on the frozen vista of 17th century London, and the the wondrous costuming of Swinton in her 18th century hooped dress, that simultaneously suggest encumberment and domination, subservience and power, as Orlando sweeps though drawing room, salon and the garden maze. The manipulation of this one costume expresses with a precise elegance the feminine psyche located within the masculine world.
The scenes which are dialogue led and defined, which structure Potter’s script, lack the energy of her visual realisation. It is a script without tension. The meandering form of Orlando through the novel, in film translates as inconsequential drift through time. Orlando’s unchanging youth lacks any substantiation as a device, as does the mysterious gender migration Orlando undergoes during his/her arabic posting. Of course Woolf is playing with the ideas of transposition and androgyny. Woolf’s skilful play with words carries off the conceit of Orlando’s unchanging physical form. But when the words are made flesh, Swinton’s performance doesn’t reach out beyond gesture, and makes little of the male form taken by Orlando. Her male Orlando is never more than a mannequin posing as a man blessed with erectile dysfunction. Which may be Woolf’s point but in film terms it means that as there is no residual tension in Orlando’s male to female transformation. So if the film’s script is to be energised by dramatic tensions, they have to come from the realm of ideas, both political and ideological. But the script does not deliver in this respect. And without these tensions there is flatness in the film’s scenario that causes the film to drift into deadness.
Instead of boldly co-opting a more pointed feminist discourse, the dialogue is often flat, even when attempting self parody. Actor’s breaking frame by speaking directly to audience through the screen can be an powerful scripting device. Sally Potter makes use of this idea to put another arrow into Orlando’s quiver. Swinton’s direct remarks and observations don’t hit any target, fail to offset add undermine or have significance other than the hit of initial surprise of the interpolations. As if Potter had not really come to terms with what she wanted these frame breaks to achieve.
The cumulative feeling of the script and dialogue is that we are enclosed in a slow drift through the ages of inconsequentiality. Time comes and goes, a poem is written, some of the subjectivities of being a woman, are expressed. But nothing really interrupts the balance of self possession and self control, the politics of appearances that are the defining contours of ‘Orlando’.
Sometimes beautiful and expressive but Potter’s film seems defined by a lacking of moments of boldness of direct incision into the idea and form of her material. Instead her film reads like a series of decisions to play safe. Adrin Neatrour firstname.lastname@example.org