Tuesday, 30 March 2010

I Would Gladly Marry You, But I Fear My Ankle Is Twisted.

Again, mildly mangled, but I like the line.

Oh, Virginia Woolf. How we love thee. Orlando, the book, is a terrific read, spanning time and gender with a serious suspension of disbelief, but still beautifully and realistically, getting the gender narrative across whilst seemingly playing in fantasy. Orlando, the film, does the same. Sally Potter helms her breakout second feature, and wisely puts Tilda Swinton in the lead - not only can she appear somewhat androgenous, she is also such a brilliant actor.

Orlando (Swinton), the character, is born a boy, an aristocrat in England. While her family entertains the aging Queen Elizabeth I (Quentin Crisp - fabulous!), the first Betty to rule over England bestows upon him the land of his father on one condition - that he doesn't fade, that he doesn't wither, that he doesn't grow old. Orlando takes up the challenge with gusto. He is betrothed to marry a fellow British aristocrat, a proper girl, but soon falls in love with a beautiful Russian princess (Charlotte Valandrey) whose ship is trapped in a frozen Thames. The princess is otherwise enamoured, leaving poor Orlando heartbroken and off to take up an ambassadorial post in Turkey. He is almost killed in a diplomatic incident, and the next morning wakes up... a woman.

The new, female Orlando returns to her estate in England to discover that there are a number of lawsuits pending against her - namely, stripping her of her estate due to the fact that not only has she been declared legally dead, thereby making it impossible for her in fact to lord over her land, but also that, as she is now female, she is not entitled to it. She takes this all in her stride (remembering that some centuries have passed, and she is presumably by now well-versed in taking things on the chin), before falling in love with a visiting American Shelmerdine (Billy Zane), a whirlwind romance that can never last, though it does beget for her a child. The film closes with a new segment from Potter where Orlando travels to the city and receives information in the publication of a novel she has written, apparently her biography.

The film could quite easily have been muddy and hard to follow, but this is remedied by the masterful trick of never letting it feel entirely real. Orlando often looks to the camera and even speaks narrative pick-ups, his/her responses to the trials and tribulations set for him/her are quite stoic, tongue-in-cheek, even jocular, and the fantasy of her existence, while never questioned, is laid out in a 'believe it or not' fashion - whether or not you believe it is up to you, but the strengths of the film remain.

Those strengths are Swinton's performance, the superb production design and the terrific adaptation from the source material. Supporting players come and go very quickly (Billy Zane is second credit but is on screen for only a little over ten minutes - enough time to remind me that he was hawt back then, but not really enough time for any depth of character or true development of the American traveller to shine through) but play their parts well, but the entire film rests on the shoulders of Swinton and she does not disappoint. Superlatives don't give the woman justice. 

Serious kudos to Potter for managing to pull such a compelling film out of such a seemingly impossible novel, and (wait for it, I'm going there again) to Swinton for keeping it all firmly in check. One of the more creative literary adaptations I've seen. 4.5 stars.

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