In college I was supposed to read Virginia Woolf’s Orlando for a modern novel course I was enrolled in. Avoiding it, as I’m prone to do with all of Woolf’s haggard passive-aggressive feminism, I never imagined that several years later I would be sitting in MoMA near Tilda Swinton watching her performance in Sally Potter’s cinematic adaptation of the same name. For the ninety-nine percent of the public who only know Woolf as the author of flower-buying, bell-ringing epics like Mrs. Dalloway, Orlando is the author’s attempt at exploring identity through time and gender bending. There’s stuff tossed in about the ravages of time on reality and all that mumbo-jumbo, but all of that falls to background for what Orlando is and why he’s made that way. The strange thing is that it actually works better in film—feels less hackneyed when the artist’s agenda is less obvious—and entertains along the way.
Orlando (Tilda Swinton), is a careless boy in the court of Queen Elizabeth I (who appears to be melting from old age). After reading some poetry to Her Majesty about the wonders of youth he is cursed (cursed!) to never again age or wither, and is invested with one of her regal mansions at the time of her death. In the four hundred years that follow we witness Orlando’s passion for everything from women and writing to politics and society burn out; after a Russian mistress leaves him stood up in the cold, he swears off women for a lifetime. Years later—and I mean years—after writing embittered poetry about his lost love and inviting a poet to help spice up his writing, he’s told it sucks too much and is left paying the man’s pension. Sometime during his Asiatic travels in the British colonial army he falls into a trance and wakes up a female. This is where the real identity-exploration picks up. Though everyone at home immediately recognizes Orlando, (s)he’s forced to wear huge encumbering dresses while sitting silently in rooms listening to men discuss the philosophy of doorknobs and tea. She’s eventually stripped of her land by legal decree, and forced to face either nobel marriage or homelessness. It sounds like a lot to wedge into a ninety minute movie on four million dollars, but Potter does a surprisingly great job trimming the storytelling so that nothing feels skipped over–actually invests time with a sense that though it’s passing, nothing is changing, at least as gender politics are concerned. Though the gender/identity exploration hinges on an absurd transformation mid-film thrown in for a specific feminist agenda, it just feels like part of the ride.
And that’s exactly what Orlando is. There’s no definitive struggle, no climax to speak of—it’s a ride you have to let yourself go on. If the opening phrase of “He, that is, I” doesn’t sound linguistically loaded, you’re probably not going to get much depth from the film, but that doesn’t make the whole immortal tranny surprise elements any less entertaining. Sally Potter’s done amazing work with bone dry source material—churned out a fun, sarcastic little character out of a forgotten literary figure—and given us an interesting costume drama to boot. Its visual style that will remind viewers of Julie Taymor’s more recent Titus, with high concept sets and landscapes that are simultaneously timeless and anchored, but unlike Shakespeare’s bloodbath, tells a coherent, entertaining story. I just gave a Virginia Woolf-based film over Shakespeare—never thought I’d do that.