Judge Brett Cullum thinks Tilda Swinton makes a beautiful man and a handsome woman.
Queen Elizabeth I [conferring the family estate upon Orlando]: "For you
and for your heirs, Orlando: the house."
Orlando is an intoxicating mix of gorgeous costumes, extreme design, beautiful people, gender politics, and dry wit. Tilda Swinton (Michael Clayton) plays the titular character Orlando, a man who never ages and at a pivotal point switches sexes from male to female. No explanation is given for not aging or the change of genitalia, but nobody makes a fuss over it. A narrator says, "She's lived for 400 years and hardly aged a day; but, because this is England, everyone pretends not to notice." The film is more interested in exploring how Orlando is treated as a man and then as a woman, and showing a fantastical journey through six hundred years of English history is simply the best way to chronicle social change. Most movies would be more concerned with the sci fi elements of longevity, but this story is about lofty ideas and basic feminist concepts. All this makes tons of sense when we realize it is adapted from the book by Virginia Woolf and directed by English filmmaker Sally Potter.
Facts of the Case
Orlando is a young English lord who meets Queen Elizabeth (gay icon Quentin Crisp) and receives a great gift of property and immortality. He falls in love with a Cossack princess (French film star Charlotte Valandrey), but she spurns his advances. A hundred years later Orlando is obsessed with poetry and education. Another century passes, and Orlando refuses to fight in a war. This results in his sex being changed, a nice and subtle nod to a feminist ideal about battle. The political and social consequences are great to our hero who is now a heroine. A lord begs for her hand and she spurns it, and he creates all kinds of torment for her legally. She loses her property because she is now a woman, and they can not own real estate. Orlando loses everything. Then she meets the lovely Shelmerdine (Billy Zane, Titanic) and falls in love. Six hundred years of costumes, six centuries of history, and finally Orlando finds true happiness.
Orlando has been released on DVD before, including on a bare bones U.S. version from 1999 which is now out of print. Recently in another region Sony offered the film with more supplements, and that is what we get to see here in this new American pressing. The transfer is an improvement in terms of clarity and removing some dirt from the print, but the image is still grainy and washed out. Part of the issue is that director Sally Potter purposefully color keyed each period of history to look visually different. Elizabethan times feature all colors drained save for golds, oranges, and reds; the Victorian era emphasizes blue and pale shades while dialing down other hues. This leeching of other colors sometimes result in an unusual contrast level, and so blacks can look grainy or not nearly deep enough. Saturation of color can also be affected, although that seems to not be as much of an issue. I could still notice how Tilda Swinton's eyes changed colors in each segment, so there was enough color depth to notice those types of design details. Sound is rendered in the original stereo, and it is nice to notice the score is now pitch perfect. Previous pressing featured a slight speed up which negatively impacted any work by singer Jimmy Sommerville who opens and closes the film.
The extras include six featurettes that are often video diary looks at behind the scenes on the production. What is billed as "select scenes commentary by Sally Potter" is actually an interview with director Sally Potter while scenes are intercut with her talking points and recollections about the film. She is sitting in what looks like an editing bay while talking, and it seems to be filmed pretty close to the initial release of the film. Next up is a featurette called "Orlando Goes to Russia" which details the attempted location shooting the crew tried to do in the newly opened U.S.S.R., which was to stand in for frozen old England. They thought it would be a cost saving move, but alas this proved wrong. The shoot never came to pass, and the featurette displays a costly false start for the production. Then we get "Orlando in Uzbekistan" that provides a lengthy chronicle of location filming for the hot desert sequences. Together these two supplements clock in at eighty minutes, and offer a feature length look at how the film came to be. "Jimmy Was an Angel" lets you see androgynous pop singer Jimmy Sommerville as they transform him to the heavenly visage that closes the film. "Venice Film Festival Press Conference" is a self-explanatory look at media questions in Italy, where the film premiered. "An Interview with Sally Potter" features more footage taken at the Venice Film Festival, but this time outside with Sally speaking solo to an unseen Italian reporter. Finally, a vintage trailer is also included.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The only gripe I can unleash on Orlando is that the transfer could stand to be far better. It still looks primitive almost VHS in quality, and I wish they had gone a few steps further and possibly authored a high definition version of the film. The project was nominated for an Academy Award for production and costume design, so the visual aspects are key to the experience. The extras are also vintage with nothing new offered, and missing is any input from the cast. Particularly strange is no interview with Tilda Swinton outside of the footage from Venice or the occasional sound bite from on set diaries. I would love to hear her take on the film almost two decades later. Where is she now?
Orlando remains a nicely paced costume drama that has a charm and wit rare in the genre. The material from Virginia Woolf seems more interesting than say The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, since it actually is more concerned about social impact of longevity or not aging traditionally. It's easily one of Tilda Swinton's best roles, and it fits her style quite nicely even if she is never wholly believable as a man. She has an all-too-apparent old, wise soul, and that's what makes the whole thing work so well. Adding to everything are outstanding design work, wonderful music, and sure-handed editing. This new release of the DVD provides a nice number of extras to go along with the feature. Fans should be quite pleased, although this one begs for a more comprehensive visual mastering. Maybe in the next hundred years…
Not guilty of aging at all, and still a wonderful journey.
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