Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Reel Thoughts: Forever Tilda

Tilda Swinton bears a lot in common with the character she plays in Orlando (available today in a new Special Edition DVD). Swinton’s Orlando is a British nobleman who barely ages over four centuries and who is so androgynous, he spontaneously changes sex halfway through the film. Swinton is so ageless, it makes the film seem practically new. Director Sally Potter’s 1993 adaptation of the novel by Virginia Woolf is a ravishing and elegant classic, a time-warping, gender-bending mind trip you’ll never forget.

Orlando begins his story as a young nobleman who is much favored by the aging Queen Elizabeth. Potter’s ingenious casting of queer icon Quentin Crisp as the Queen gives the film a surreal and wonderful quality. Orlando is granted favors and property by the ancient royal before her death, and is much in demand as a would-be groom to the nobility. During a freakishly cold winter, Orlando meets and falls in love with a Russian princess who breaks his heart by leaving. Each chapter of the film is introduced with one word, and Orlando’s next obsession is with poetry, then with politics.

Traveling to central Asia as an ambassador, Orlando feels at first freed by the desert life, but then is pressed into fighting alongside the locals. Unwilling to kill and not wanting to be killed, he awakens to find he’s become a woman. Unfortunately, women are not allotted the same rights and privileges, and Orlando finds herself being denied her rightful ownership of her estate and belongings. Time jumps forward throughout Orlando, and it’s best not to dwell on how or why it happens. Revel in Swinton’s magnetic performance and a romantic interlude with a pre-Titanic Billy Zane.

Potter’s creation is magical and engrossing, and her visual imagery (servants skating with torches, elegant English gardens with hedge mazes, etc,) is unmatched. The new DVD includes two hours of additional material, including fascinating features about trying to film in the newly liberated Russia and Uzbekistan, and a piece on Bronski Beat singer Jimmy Somerville entitled "Jimmy Was an Angel" (and in the movie, he is).

Even if you’ve seen Orlando before, you’ll love it more now.

Review by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.

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