Orlando: neither a man, nor a woman. A being. Both ancient and modern. Untouched by the everlasting passage of time. Unbounded. Originally the object of Virginia Woolf’s experimental twist on the traditional biography, Orlando is revisited by Sally Potter in this 1992 screen adaptation starring Tilda Swinton.
Woolf was certainly a precursor in raising the question: what is gender? Is one to question one’s desires and ambitions, to base one’s fully formed being, and the complexities of one’s mind entirely on physical attributes over which one has little to no control? Should one not, on the contrary, focus on one’s thoughts and feelings regardless of the body in which these are experienced?
For, indeed, to be human is to be more than your outer shell. But Orlando is more than mere flesh and bone. Orlando transcends the ages of man, reaches the stars. Orlando understands what others cannot. That we are One. That there is no such divide between the sexes. Bodies are sensory costumes through which life can be witnessed, tasted, destroyed, and reinvented.
The film successfully manages, through strenuous consideration of the literary material, to bring Woolf’s formidably demanding words to the screen. Every single shot serves a purpose; it is as if Woolf herself were guiding Potter each step of the way in the making of a most satisfying and exquisite piece of art.
But let us speak of Orlando themselves. Tilda Swinton commands our attention with utter control and bewitches the eye. In fact, eyes are particularly significant to this piece. The biographer in Woolf’s text describes Orlando as having ‘eyes like drenched violets, so large that the water seemed to have brimmed in them and widened them’. Thanks to Sally Potter’s use of close-ups and Alexei Rodionov’s heavenly lighting, it seems as though Orlando’s gaze is always set on us. Orlando’s breaking of the fourth wall is never tedious or dull; in a sense, it becomes effortless and natural, almost expected, adding delightfully unforeseen touches of humour to situations that otherwise carry a more formal feeling. Certain characters deliver long solemn declarations, to which our beloved Orlando simply shrugs and in response offers a mere: ‘interesting’.
Sound plays a crucial part in the film, creating an atmosphere outside time and space and enhancing the metaphysical aspect of our protagonist. David Motion’s and Sally Potter’s soundtrack sustains the complete engagement of the spectator within Orlando’s transfiguration. The intricate melodies ever present in nature, such as the breeze blowing through the trees, the chirping of the early rising robins, a horse galloping, rain pouring down, are heaving with a million emotions and mystical secrets.
Orlando’s journey spans across centuries of fashion. Starting in the 1600s, and ending in the present day — namely that of the initial release of the film — 1992. The costume design was under the direction of Sandy Powell and Dien van Straalen. The clothes range from Shakespearean worthy puffy sleeved Elizabethan garbs, to late 1650s softer and looser fabrics, elaborate huge 1750s makeup, wigs, and skirts, to more obscure Victorian looks, leading up to androgynous wear near the end of the period.
Orlando explores the infamous journey of discovering, and uncovering oneself. One’s purpose. One’s life. Yes. Orlando will take you on a philosophical and spiritual ride. You need only let go of preconceived notions of gender identity, sexuality, and time for an hour and a half. Entering Woolf’s and Potter’s realm means gaining a refreshed perspective on the above concepts, awakening of deep urges to dress extravagantly well and run through a forest, and the unassailable desire to revolutionise your own world. It is our belief, that with this motion picture — and with Woolf’s text — the prime intention was to access a larger comprehension of all the potential that one has, provided they free themselves of the constraints of centuries of mental conditioning.