What Gertrude Stein said about Oakland applies equally to “Orlando” (the movie, not the metropolis): There’s no there there. Though visually impressive and assured, it is the hollowest of successes, all chic set design, smug posturing and self-satisfied attitude.
Adapted from Virginia Woolf’s time-travel fantasy by British writer-director Sally Potter, “Orlando” seems so intent on having something meaningful to say that for a while one waits patiently for the word. But the longer it goes on, the more the film’s core insubstantiality becomes evident, and the less patience we have even for its virtues.
In fact, the best way to experience “Orlando” (selected theaters, rated PG-13) is to see its first half hour and then go home. Anchored by that most regal of real-life queens, Quentin Crisp, as Queen Elizabeth I, “Orlando’s” opening sequences have a wit and slyness that is soon to be only a memory.
The Orlando of the title (actress Tilda Swinton) is introduced as a privileged young man circa 1600, the kind of quiet fellow likely to fall asleep over a volume of poetry.
Presented to the queen at his parents’ castle, he soon becomes a personal favorite of the aged sovereign, who calls him “the son of my old age, the limb of my infirmity” and rewards him with both title and property.
As photographed by the splendid Russian cinematographer Alexei Rodionov (and in part shot in the former Soviet Union) and designed by Ben Van Os and Jan Roelfs, veterans of “Prospero’s Books” and other Peter Greenaway films, “Orlando’s” rich and elegant images of the Elizabethan world are even more impressive when the film’s slight $4-million budget is factored in.
And “Orlando’s” theme of sexual ambiguity and role reversal is nicely illustrated as the man playing Queen Elizabeth and the woman playing Orlando share a chaste embrace. Even the film’s next sequences, involving Orlando’s infatuation with Sasha (Charlotte Valandrey), a beautiful young Russian woman, share some of that charm.
But as Orlando marches through some 350 years of history, remaining always youthful and beautiful, it becomes increasingly apparent that the film has already said everything it has to say and is intent only on repeating itself. And as far as any kind of emotional connection to match its carefully constructed look goes, that is simply not to be had.
What we get instead, in increasingly feeble vignettes, is the re-emphasis of the idea of the arbitrariness of sexual roles. By the time, midway through the film, Orlando wakes up to find himself a woman and says “same person, no difference at all, just a different sex,” interest in this rather artificial character is at such a low ebb he or she could wake up a giraffe and it would be hard to suppress a yawn.
Once Orlando is a woman, the film turns into an equally unsurprising and undernourished exploration of sexual discrimination, of the way society has traditionally devalued the worth of women. While this is both true and troublesome, just restating it again and again is not enough to base an intellectually or emotionally involving movie on.
Because of Potter’s didactic approach to movie-making, her performers have been pretty much left to their own devices, leading to several cases of exaggerated acting and the striking of poses around her arch dialogue. “You’re too serious and not serious enough,” Sasha tells Orlando at one point, and something like that could be said about this uncompromisingly artificial film as well.
Tilda Swinton: Orlando
Billy Zane: Shelmerdine
Lothaire Bluteau: The Khan
John Wood: Archduke Harry
Charlotte Valandrey: Sasha
Quentin Crisp: Queen Elizabeth I
Released by Sony Pictures Classics. Director Sally Potter. Producer Christopher Sheppard. Screenplay Sally Potter, based on a novel by Virginia Woolf. Cinematographer Alexi Rodionov. Editor Herve Schneid. Costumes Sandy Powell. Music David Motion, Sally Potter. Production design Ben Van Os, Jan Roelfs. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes.
MPAA-rated PG-13 (some sensuality).
* THE DIRECTOR
Sally Potter’s ‘Orlando’ has become an international hit. F12