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Slim, tall, ginger, and intense, Oscar®-winner Tilda Swinton has become one of the most respected actresses of her generation. But in 1992, when Sally Potter cast her as Orlando in her idiosyncratic adaptation of Virginia Woolf's revolutionary 1928 novel "Orlando: A Biography," Swinton was largely unknown. She had been busy in theater and on television in Britain and was a defining presence in the provocative films of Derek Jarman. Orlando may not have made her a star, but it certainly introduced her to filmgoers the world over and launched a career that since blossomed.
Orlando is just the kind of adventurous project that appealed to the actress, the story of an androgynously beautiful young aristocrat named Orlando who is lover to Queen Elizabeth I. "Do not fade. Do not wither. Do not grow old," commands the Queen, and he obeys, remaining unchanged over four centuries. Or almost unchanged. One morning some hundred years later, the lad looks into the mirror while dressing and realizes he has transformed into a woman. "Same person, no difference at all," she muses. "Just a different sex."
British filmmaker Sally Potter, who came from experimental films and documentaries, had made only one feature before tackling this project. She wrote her first treatment in the 1980s, initially setting it aside when she was told that it would be too difficult to realize, then returning to tackle that challenge head on. Orlando became a true multinational production. Five producers from five different countries came together to make the film, which was still small by studio standards (the final budget was about $5 million); the preparations, from raising money to scouting locations, went on for four years before production could begin. After long negotiations, a deal was made to shoot the film in Russia, where their production dollar would stretch farther. The production was able to recreate centuries of cultural history, from Orlando's lavish manor to the frozen Thames of 17th century London to 18th century Constantinople, on location in Leningrad and, later, in Uzbekistan. Very little was shot in the studio, and most of that involved special effects sequences.
To find the cinematic counterpart to Virginia Woolf's prose, and remain true to the slippery story that spans four hundred years and the transformation of its main character from a man to a woman, Potter combined the experimental tools and feminist approach of her earlier films with the lush imagery of art-house period pieces. A century or decades may pass over the course of a single fluid sequence or suddenly in a cut and Orlando speaks to the audience in brief, often witty asides to the camera, Potter's cinematic solution to the direct address sequences from the novel. According to Potter, the original screenplay was full of such moments, including a few long speeches, but she pared them back through the shooting and the editing until there are only a few, very brief addresses, and in some cases as little as a conspiratorial glance, to achieve "a sort of complicity with the camera."
Androgyny and sexual confusion abounds. Swinton plays a young man through much of the film and Potter craftily cast queer icon Quentin Crisp as Queen Elizabeth, a man playing a woman opposite a woman playing a man, to help foreground the complicated swirl of gender and sexual identity in the film. "He is the true queen of England, he's my idea of royalty," is how Potter explained his casting in a 2008 interview. And she cast singer Jimmy Somerville, a male soprano with an ethereal, girlish voice, as an angel in Orlando's visions.
Within this slightly skewed perspective, the flouncy, flamboyant male fashions and long curly wigs donned for formal meetings and social occasions take on a whole new meaning in terms of social image, male friendship, romantic relationships, and companionship. While Orlando accepts his new life as a woman in a single comment, her social and legal identity becomes completely redefined in this transformation. Yet Potter insists that it is not necessarily a feminist film, but a portrait of the difficulty in being a human being. "One of the things we're saying here is that men and women have far more in common than we've imagined, that the differences between us have been grossly exaggerated and made the basis for huge pain, grief and misery. Women have difficult lives, but men have difficult lives, too," she explained in a 1993 interview.
Orlando had its world premiere at the 1992 Venice Film Festival, where it was greeted with largely positive reception, and opened in the United States in 1993. "This ravishing and witty spectacle invades the mind through eyes that are dazzled without ever being anesthetized," wrote Vincent Canby in The New York Times, who singled out Swinton's performance in his review. "With the firmest but lightest of touches, she has spun gossamer."
Producer: Christopher Sheppard
Director: Sally Potter
Screenplay: Sally Potter; Virginia Woolf (novel)
Cinematography: Aleksei Rodionov
Art Direction: Michael Buchanan, Michael Howells
Music: David Motion, Sally Potter
Film Editing: Herv Schneid
Cast: Tilda Swinton (Orlando), Billy Zane (Shelmerdine), Quentin Crisp (Queen Elizabeth I), John Bott (Orlando's Father), Elaine Banham (Orlando's Mother), Anna Farnworth (Clorinda), Sara Mair-Thomas (Favilla), Anna Healy (Euphrosyne), Dudley Sutton (King James I), Simon Russell Beale (Earl of Moray).
by Sean Axmaker
Venice Film Festival Press Conference at the film's World Premier, 1992
Interview with Sally Potter, Venice Film Festival, 1992
"The Talk of Hollywood: How Orland Finds Her True Self," Bernard Weinraub. 1993, The New York Times.
Select Scene Commentary with Director Sally Potter. 2010, Sony Pictures DVD.