Sally Potter’s 1992 film Orlando is being re-released. I am not sure why, except that it comes of age this year, and Tilda Swinton is enjoying her considerably higher profile these days energetically to promote I Am Love, so why not? It’s jolly good. An exemplary adaptation of an interesting novel (Woolf), it remains as sprightly and blithely gender-bending as when first released.

The Players

  • Director/Writer: Sally Potter
  • Producer: Christopher Sheppard
  • Cinematographer: Aleksei Rodionov
  • Production Designers: Ben van Os, Jan Roelfs
  • Costumiere: Sandy Powell
  • Actors: Tilda Swinton, John Wood, Quentin Crisp, Billy Zane, Lothaire Bluteau, Heathcote William

The Plot

In 1600, the ageing Queen Elizabeth I tells young nobleman Orlando “do not fade”. He takes on immortality and proceeds through a series of episodes treating of different themes (love, death, politics etc) each in a different period up to the present day (1992). In 1700, whilst a diplomat in the middle east, Orlando chooses not to behave like a man and die thoughtlessly for a cause in which he does not believe, so changes sex; as a woman in the nineteenth-century she finds herself bereft of respect and, soon, title and property. In the present day, however, she is at peace with her strange situation, and with the passing of time.

The Good

  • The casting: Arch-androgyne Tilda Swinton is of course perfect, with big black eyes, porcelain white skin and a sexuality that is less ambiguous than unknowable. She is a slightly alien first cousin to Bowie’s Thomas Newton (and I hereby call for the biopic of him starring her). The opening section eases the casting conceit by having Quentin Crisp play Elizabeth, another perfect stroke, whom he invests with a heartfelt melancholy at the withering passage of time. The rest of the cast is filled out with semi-familiar faces from English rep, all doing a fine job. Billy Zane’s segment is treated with amusement which allows his cheesy mugging (but Lothaire Bluteau is a little disappointing as a dour Khan).
  • The sprightliness: Lightness of touch covers a multitude of improbabilities, but provides also for Swinton to direct the occasional line, or simply a knowing look, to the camera, ensuring that the audience never feels like its being hoodwinked.
  • The look: the production designers came from Peter Greenaway and more or less reproduce his style, with their typical panache (and equally well across several periods). Likewise Sandy Powell, from Derek Jarman’s team, surpasses herself, on a far greater scale than she had previously been given. And it’s all photographed by the terrific Russian cameraman Rodionov, who shot Klimov’s amazing Come and See.

The Bad

  • There’s not much, really, unless you really don’t like costume pictures (and this panders far less than most to the conventions of the form). It’s a bit flimsy, but it’s not meant to be otherwise, and certainly prompts enough areas – sexuality, identity, time, society etc – for the viewer to muse at their leisure.
  • Occasionally facile: It does smack of Greenaway, and there’s even a hint of Nyman on the soundtrack (also not so good: early 90s echoey synth voices). The First World War is dealt with in as passing a fashion as possible and, like the book, it’s not sure how to end.


Go and see it, not least as one doesn’t get the chance to see as strange and charming a movie as this every day. It is witty rather than profound, a sleight of hand that remains naggingly intriguing, and slightly preoccupied with how pretty it is. But it is indeed gorgeous to look at, made with intelligence, and wide-ranging in its implications.

Rating: 8/10

Orlando is re-released in Los Angeles and New York on Friday July 23, and in selected theatres thereafter.