Released on Blu-ray for the very first time courtesy of UK distributor Artificial Eye, Sally Potter’s lavish 1992 adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s century-spanning novel Orlando marked the arrival of British actress Tilda Swinton onto the international stage. Despite missing out on individual Oscar recognition for either Potter or Swinton, the film picked up Academy Award nominations for Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design – and it’s easy to see why.
Swinton takes up the mantle of the titular Orlando, who begins the narrative as a dashing young Lord in the court of Queen Elizabeth I (brilliantly played by esteemed thesp Quentin Crisp), who bestows a great deal of land over to our plucky protagonist on one condition – that Orlando stay young and beautiful for eternity. Bewitched by the arrival of a beautiful Muscovite Princess, Orlando dishonours both himself and his formerly-betrothed fiancée in the wild pursuit of love, which eventually leads the affluent dignitary across Europe, into the exotic climes of Asia and back again.
At some point in the melee, Orlando awakes to find himself a ‘herself’ and must radically adjust to his newfound feminine status whilst battling to keep the land that is still rightfully his/hers. As the former-Lord’s unnaturally prolonged life continues through from the Elizabethan Age into the late 20th century (a natural expansion by Potter upon Woolf’s original text) – experiencing both the horrors of war and motherhood along the way – Orlando is given time and space to muse on the very nature of love itself, both lustful and maternal.
Each period – from Queen Elizabeth’s reign in the 1500s, through to the Victorian Age and beyond – is clearly distinguished by some truly outstanding costume and set design. Rarely has the inaugural Elizabethan Age looked so lush and resplendent as it does in Potter’s existentialist costume romp, replacing the standard mud-entrenched streets and open sewers with skater-filled lakes of ice and vast green expanses. Similarly impressive is the award-worthy make-up and costume design, with the androgynous Swinton (and a host of supporting cast members) swapping genders seemingly at will.
As an adaptation, Potter’s Orlando does at times struggle to keep track of its runaway narrative, and understandably so. As we may well see with the Wachowski’s upcoming take on David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, bounding through time and space is often far better suited to the page than the screen. Breaks in the fourth wall also have the potential to grate, but reassuringly Swinton’s intoxicating lead turn and Potter’s aesthetic eye make up for the majority of the film’s failings and flaws – made all the more evident thanks to this sumptuous Blu-ray rerelease.
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