English Title: Orlando

Country of Origin: Britain

Studio: Adventure Pictures/Sony Pictures Classics

Director: Sally Potter

Producer(s): Christopher Sheppard

Screenplay: Sally Potter

Cinematographer: Aleksei Rodionov

Editor: Hervé Schneid

Runtime: 93 minutes

Genre: Heritage/Art

Language: English

Starring/Cast: Billy Zane, Quentin Crisp, Lothaire Bluteau, Tilda Swinton

Year: 1992

Volume: British


Orlando unfolds over five hundred years of British history through the eyes of a character who changes sex, from man to woman, mid-way through his/her journey. As a young lord, Orlando pledges to obey the command given by Elizabeth I in 1600: ‘Do not fade, do not wither, do not grow old.’ He experiences romantic disappointment and is thrown into the midst of colonial wars. In 1700, Orlando wakes up as a woman, only to find the ownership of the estate bestowed to ‘him’ by Elizabeth I endangered by 'her' new feminine condition. In 1850 Orlando is abandoned by her adventurer lover, but bears a daughter who rides into London with her in the 1990s. Her journey concludes under the same oak tree where it began five centuries earlier, with an optimistic nod towards the future. 


Based on Virginia Woolf’s modernist novel and roman-à-clef about Vita Sackville-West (Orlando: A Biography, 1928), Sally Potter’s first mainstream fiction feature draws on the conventions of heritage film as well as on Potter’s own experimental film practice in previous works such as Thriller (1979) and The Gold Diggers (1983). Orlando, alongside The Piano (Jane Campion, 1993), best represents the turn to an anti-classicist, formally adventurous and politically progressive heritage film in the 1990s – a trend sometimes called post-heritage or anti-heritage (Voigts-Virchow 2004). In Orlando, the orderly landscapes of heritage film are transformed into a gender-bender hall of mirrors.


Orlando is divided into a series of historical chapters, each one preceded by an inter-title. They form a sequence that follows Orlando’s life journey, both as male and as female, from ‘1600 Death’ to ‘Birth’ (undated, but located in the 1990s), passing through ‘1610 Love’, ‘1650 Poetry’, ‘1700 Politics’, ‘1750 Society’ and ‘1850 Sex’. By rigorously fragmenting space and time into a series of self-enclosed episodes, Orlando unfolds as a multi-faceted portrait of its central character.


The celebration of fluid, androgynous identity in Woolf's novel is grounded in the film by a riveting yet appropriately deadpan performance by Tilda Swinton, former collaborator of queer avant-garde film-maker Derek Jarman, as the eponymous hero/heroine. Orlando journeys on through (her)story without history apparently affecting his/her character or appearance and becomes a sounding board for culturally-determined conceptions of masculinity and femininity. As a man, he is cornered into waging colonial wars; as a woman, she is forced into submission and threatened with dispossession. The narrative is devoid of conventional progression and instead ‘time-jumps’. Sometimes it even violates the rules of visual continuity that constitute the mainstay of the classicist narrative mode in the heritage film – nowhere is this more apparent than in Orlando's transition from Victorian lady to pregnant WWI refugee. This aesthetic of interruptions is reinforced by Orlando’s sometimes puzzled, sometimes ironic look to camera. This self-reflexive ‘look’ is the film’s main rhetorical strategy, allowing the story to build on narrative echoes and repetitions that represent the character’s accumulated experience.


Orlando’s trans-historical look posits, as Pidduck (2004) points out, a clearly feminist mode of address. Whereas in the novel Orlando has a son that allows her to hold onto her estate, in the film Orlando bears a daughter and, most crucially (as Potter herself has noted), she lets go of the house. In the last section of the film Orlando steps into her former property (now a tourist heritage attraction) and stands in front of her five-century-old portrait with a smile of recognition and amusement. The gentle, playful humour as well as the poignancy of its feminist statement accounts for Orlando’s lasting popularity and its imaginative reworking of heritage film codes. A utopian film at heart, Orlando constitutes a poignant meditation on the need to face history while letting go of the past.

Author of this review: Belén Vidal

Peer reviewer: Belén Vidal