Film Review: Orlando

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Words | Jay Muir

Ah, Orlando—the film directed by Sally Potter and starring Tilda Swinton, an adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s novel by the same name—I see we meet again. When was it last we chanced upon this field of battle? Yes, I remember now, the distant year of 2012, the HSC, extension english, module: gender. Whilst we were foes then, locked in embittered combat, I now remember you as a companion. A pity you don’t live up to what you could be. 

Before I go on, full disclosure, I am a cis man and this is a film about gender and it’s intricacies throughout the ages, but I digress. I like this movie. Solid 7/10-ish. 

With its mise en scene, Tilda Swinton knocks it out of the park. Billy Zane is in it for five minutes and is named Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine (which delightfully obliterates my spell check). I could go on. But damn if this movie doesn’t reek with “high-literature.” It’s slow, there’s no central conflict, and I’m certain you need to have read the book to follow the film. 

It’s a movie you would watch in english classes but not in film classes. A film you can only really enjoy if you’re on its wavelength and ready for some gendered examinations of history. Even then, it lacks Woolf’s best musings from her book (which was written as a love letter/fanfic to her girlfriend, so big sapphic energy).

Orlando centres around Orlando, a British nobleman who lives forever because the Queen told him to. Eventually down the line Orlando wakes up as a woman. Throughout the film we see the gender politics, and elaborate costumes from various periods of British history. And like history, this film takes forever to get anywhere. 

Orlando is a film best watched with a bunch of friends looking for a queer film. This way you can: 

  • Talk over the boring bits (the 1650s could’ve been cut entirely), stan Orlando when they’re iconic (gets ghosted, goes into a weeks long depressive slumber in an opulent bed). 
  • Boo Orlando when they don’t drink respect-women-juice (Orlando spends a good chunk of the movie as a primo fuckboi).
  • And just holler yikes in unison at some parts (“women are a beautiful romantic animal… apart from my wife”). 

I think Potter adapted the book too closely and in doing so ran out of time for the best parts of the novel. Towards the end of the novel Orlando continues their adventure on the SS Gender Theory, piloted by Simone de Beauvoir, into genderfluid and non-binary territories. In the film Orlando’s gendered trip has only two destinations, masc and femme. 

Perhaps this speaks to the zeitgeist of both works and is why I reckon it’s time for a remake. It’s a 1990s film, about a 1920s novel, about gender. The world has learned a lot about gender since then and now more than ever do we need Orlando to dunk some succulent gender theory upon us. 

I’d like a remake to be snappier, quicker, getting Orlando on the gender train sooner. Woolf’s writing had some whimsy to it and the film needs more of this whimsy. A couple of times Orlando looks at the camera knowingly and there should’ve been more of this. I swear in the book when Orlando changes genders the fey spirit of femininity dances about. I refuse to check this for myself however, I ain’t ever touching anything related to Year 12 again. 

Honestly I think what this movie needed most was the fun energy that’s in The Emperor’s New Groove. The opening where Kuzco does the whole “I bet you’re wondering how I got here” bit to the audience could just be copied directly into Orlando.

Now please don’t get it twisted, I like this film. But that’s only because I read the book. I would only watch it again to spring it upon some friends and watch in delight as they react to what I know is coming. The same way you spring The Room on someone. With The Room you catch something new each watch. I already caught all of what Orlando has. 

Woolf’s magnum opus deserves a film that can stand on its own. Too many adaptations of literary masterworks stay far too hoity-toity and lose the spirit of what they are adapting. We need a bit more postmodern fancy in our favourite eternal genderfluid icon. 

In short, I think Homer said it best: 

Never, Sally Potter’s Orlando, never. I can’t love the button-down film like you. I want it all: the terrifying 17th Century, the dizzying 21st, and the creamy 19th. Sure, you might offend a few of the bluenoses with your postmodernism and queer theory – oh, you’ll never be the darling of the so-called “literary academics” who cluck their tongues, stroke their beards, and talk about “what’s to be done with this Virginia Woolf?”