“Do not fade. Do not wither. Do not grow old.” – Queen Elizabeth I
Of all costume pictures, this is one of the most beautiful and enchanting. Orlando opens as one of the most difficult and challenging films for at least the first twenty minutes – based on the 1928 Virginia Woolf novel, the message and theme are opaque. Until then, your eyes are on fixated on director Sally Potter’s images. Startlingly beautiful it is from frame one, and I mean startling not just stunning. When we talk startling it means that we’re discovering original images of an unparalleled nature that we have not seen like before. Arrangements of candlelight and fog, glass windows and frost, textile patterns and hedge mazes, are presented in ways we haven’t seen. Throw out all expectation for story and surrender to abstract ideas and visual voluptuousness.
Tilda Swinton depicts an English nobleman, androgynous and omnisexual, who flourishes after granted blessings from Queen Elizabeth I in this lavish and picaresque costume epic. Orlando is an ever-transforming character whom changes definition, as well as social title, during a series of episodic exploits.
In the grand realms of the open possibilities of avante-garde cinema this is the costume picture that avoids the usual genre formalities and pigeonholing. What really if you had an extraordinary life with the flexibility that allowed you to wholly indulge in Politics, Romance, Sex and Poetry – at your chosen disposal – when most single lives have time for one true solitary pursuit? I don’t think we really do have time to conquer everything we dream on doing in this lifetime, that’s why I admire this character and this film so unabashedly.
Swinton conveys utmost regality and nimble elegance to her historical set role. Conversely, she has proven through the course of her career that she can play contemporary just as well, whether they are merciless, cold-hearted characters (“Julia,” “Michael Clayton”) or benign, gentle people trapped in difficult circumstances (“The Deep End,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”). But this early film of her career really defines how arty and imaginative she is as a performer.
Billy Zane (“Titanic”) appears as a dashing romantic hero. One of the great images of the film is a simple one: Swinton and Zane side by side in bed, arms entangled, torsos pressed against each other, and Potter’s lithe, supple light on her actors. Somehow Potter creates sensual power out of a commonly staged scene. Love doesn’t last forever – this isn’t a movie about finding ultimate love. But while it does happen it’s stronger in its briefness than most movies ever amount to in full.
“Orlando” is meant for filmgoers who seek out vanguard works that play with experimental and innovative tactics. Its splendidness also lies in landscapes, costumes, art direction as well as the spellbinding creations of mood. To describe the film in matters of specific plot development would be to spoil one of cinema’s most splendid surprises. It passes over 400-plus years ultimately, and ends quite exuberantly, into the future.
93 Minutes. Rated PG-13.
COSTUME DRAMA / PERIOD PIECE / MASTERPIECE VIEWING