“I am coming, I am coming. Here I am. Neither a woman nor a man. We are joined. We are one with a human face. I am on earth, and I am in outer space. I’m being born and I am dying.”
Those words are sung towards the end of Sally Potter’s “Orlando” (1992), a film that’s more relevant than ever as it addresses the subjects of women’s role in society, sexual politics as well as the fluidity of gender. The witty movie – loosely based on the classic novel of the same title by Virginia Wolf – was quite a topic of conversation because of its boldness and ambition when it was released. It’s all about the character of Lord Orlando who we follow for 400 years – starting in the year 1600. Halfway through the journey – he wakes up as a woman. “Same person. No difference at all. Just a different sex,” the now-Lady Orlando says directly to the camera as she looks at her naked body in a full-length mirror. The fact that the role is played – early in her career – by the most androgynous of actors – Tilda Swinton – adds on to the fun of this most intriguing and reflective work. It remains one of the most opulent films for Potter’s mise-en-scene is as incisive as it is sumptuous. She dramatizes the very notion of gender.
“There can be no doubt about his sex despite the feminine appearance that every young man of the time aspires to,” we’re told in narration as we see Lord Orlando by a tree reading poetry. Since he came into the world he was looking for something else. It wasn’t privilege that he sought but company. It soon arrives in the form of the Virgin Queen herself – Elizabeth I – entering in an extraordinary candlelit pageant. She’s played by Quentin Crisp – in a venerable turn. The Queen takes a liking to Orlando’s beauty and youth and offers her financial remuneration, a castle and land. “But on one condition,” she demands. “Do not fade. Do not wither. Do not grow old.” The command works for Orlando gets to live eternally.
The film explores, in a very playful and visual style, the social and economic differences between being a man and being a woman. The predispositions for being of a particular gender are taken as irreversible truths. In an early scene, when Lord Orlando falls for a visiting Russian princess – they don’t speak each other’s language – so they speak in French. “But how do they communicate with foreigners?” Princess Sasha asks – looking at the other men. “They speak English louder,” Orlando responds. All the freedoms to experience love, poetry and politics in the first half of the narrative disappear the moment Orlando wakes up in the body of a woman. A barrister informs her that there are several lawsuits against her. “One you are legally dead, and therefore, cannot hold any property whatsoever,” she’s informed. “Two, you are now female, which amounts to much the same thing.”
Orlando’s time travel is divided into sections in which the character learns and observes a particular subject – love (1610), poetry (1650), politics (1700), society (1750), sex (1850) and birth (the present). Each section is choreographed in a very theatrical way filled with dance, ice-skating, poetry and fireworks. Potter creates a cinematic universe that has its own rules in which we don’t need to have everything explained – and just luxuriate in the ideas that it brings up. It’s highly entertaining and impish. There’s one fulminating moment in which Lady Orlando hurls herself inside a garden maze – the camera chasing after her – through the narrow passageways trying to keep up as she makes sharp turns through it. Eventually her clothes will morph into different ones – the sunshine will change into a mist.
When Orlando finally meets her ideal lover – a man who treats her as his equal – there’s a poignant exchange between them that the camera captures volleying back and forth between their faces in one single take. Lady Orlando says, “ If I were a man, I might choose not to risk my life for an uncertain cause. I might think that freedom won by death was not worth having. In fact…” Shelmerdine interrupts her: “You might choose not to be a real man at all.”
There couldn’t have been a more ideal casting than Tilda Swinton. Her performance seems to be a manifesto.
Orlando – “I think the spirit of this century has finally broken me.”
Available to stream on DIRECTV and SundanceNOW (via Prime Video). and to rent on Amazon, Vudu, Apple TV, Google Play, YouTube, Microsoft and iTunes.
Screenplay by Sally Potter. Based on the novel by Virginia Woolf
Directed by Sally Potter
Starring Tilda Swinton, Billy Zane, Lothaire Bluteau, John Wood, Charlotte Valandrey, Heathcote Williams and Quentin Crisp
The Making of “Orlando”
Filming of the “winter on the Thames” scenes began in February 1992 in St. Petersburg, Russia. Faced with a crew that spoke virtually no English and a cast that spoke virtually no Russian, Potter inspired a sense of cooperation and patience on the set that lasted throughout the film’s production. One of the key players in the creating the film was Alexei Rodionov, the Russian-born cinematographer, best known in the West for Elem Klimov’s acclaimed “Come and SEe” (1985). “One of his great strengths as a cinematographer is that he won’t settle for the obvious or easy visual solution,” says Potter. “By the end of the shoot I felt that Alexei and I had one eye.” As though weather and language barriers were not enough, Orlando’s production staff faced the task of accurately re-creating four centuries of historical details. To rise to the occasion, Potter called on some of the finest designers in film. Costume designer Sandy Powell is a veteran of such films as Derek Jarman’s “Caravaggio” (1986), Neil Jordan’s Academy Award-winning “The Crying Game” (1992), and Sally Potter’s short film, “The London Story” (1986). Ben Van Os and Jan Roelfs, Orlando’s production designers, had previously worked extensively on the films of Peter Greenaway, most notably “The Cook,” “The Thief,” “His Wife and Her Lover” (1989). Given the amount of research and detail captured in Virginia Woolf’s text, Potter, Powell, Van as and Roelfs found their challenge not so much in which details to include, but in what to leave out. “I think that because it’s an imagined history one’s not striving for accuracy here but rather an essence of each period that is exaggerated with considerable poetic license,” says Potter. That license came in the form of “color coding” each century: the regal Elizabethan periods are done in reds and golds, the winter scenes on the Thames are washed in silver and blues, the Victorian period in misty greens and purples, the 20th century in metal and plastic. Equally challenging to Potter was the issue of gender and how to best maintain Orlando’s “personhood,” as both a man and a woman. In that effort, Tilda Swinton proved to be an extraordinary asset.
As locations changed, moving from St. Petersburg, then back to England and eventually to Uzbekhistan to film the desert scenes, the challenge for Swinton and Potter was to maintain consistency in the character, ever mindful of the physical demands of both masculinity and femininity. “I was attracted to Tilda Swinton for the role on the basis of seeing her in the Manfred Karge play “Man to Man,” in which there was a profound subtlety about the way she took on male body language and handled maleness and femaleness. My intention with Orlando’s character was that there would be a seamless quality through the changes of both time and gender that would carry the suspended disbelief about maleness, femaleness and immortality.” While Tilda Swinton strove to break barriers of gender and sexuality during the production, Quentin Crisp, as the old and frail Queen Elizabeth, has made a life career of doing the very same. In Potter’s words, he is the “Queen of Queens,” and, therefore, a logical choice to play the role, particularly in the context of Virginia Woolf’s “gender- bending” politics. Potter’s research has shown that Crisp’s portrayal of Queen Elizabeth may be more than simply an interesting political or comic move: the aging monarch was once quoted as saying, “I have the mind of a man and the body of a woman.” Sally Potter’s talents extend far beyond the interpretation of Virginia Woolf’s text and an ability to choose eminently qualified designers. The visually arresting “Orlando” has a soundtrack, co-composed by Potter and David Motion that equals the richness and texture of the other production elements. Ultimately, Potter hopes her audiences walk away from “Orlando” with “a gut feeling of release, relief and hope,” a thought that is perhaps mirrored in her sense of accomplishment in completing this film which has gone on to win awards at the Venice Film Festival and others throughout Europe. The film also played in the Toronto Festival of Festivals, The Sundance Film Festival and opened the New Directors/New Films series at New York’s Museum of Modem Art. (sonyclassics.com)
Writer/Director Sally Potter on Casting Tilda Swinton
“People proposed to me at the beginning that we have two people to play the part and that was absolutely a non-starter. So finding that person was obviously crucial. I saw Tilda in Man to Man [the solo play by Manfred Karge, in which Swinton played a woman who adopted her late husband’s identity in order to keep his job] and I also saw her in a film called Friendship’s Death made by Peter Wollen, and of course knew Derek’s films. There were a couple of things: In Friendship’s Death there was, let me put it this way, evidence of extreme presence. Okay, that was ding. The second thing, in Man to Man, there was this moment, at the very end of the show, Tilda had to take off this wig thing and take a bow. I remember sitting bolt upright in the theater, because there was that presence again and in a twinkling of a flash, there was, first of all, an absolute radiant connection with the audience, and then a coming into the present moment from the play. It was those two things that in my mind added up.” (slantmagazine.com)
Tilda Swinton on “Orlando”
“If you read two sentences on Orlando, you think it’s about difference — you think it’s about a change of gender and living through many different centuries. It didn’t take me long to figure out that, actually, what I wanted to do was to look at the similarity — look at something very simple and very unchanging — so that [the character] doesn’t actually change. Orlando is a persistent spirit: The changes of gender apparatus move around, but Orlando stays the same. “And when we were discussing all of this, this is where Sally Potter and I started to develop this key thing, which was looking into the camera — this dialogue with the audience — so that the face, the gaze, that direct look stayed the same. Didn’t matter whether it was the 16th century or the 20th century — that was the same. A massive wig or a motorbike, that all changed, but this stayed the same. And once we hit on that, it was not only clear in terms of the practicalities of how to do it and how to play it, but also I found it really informative about what [Orlando] was about. It’s about spirit, actually.” (rollingstone.com)
About Author Virginia Woolf
Adeline Virginia Stephen was born on 25 January 1882 in London. Her father, Leslie Stephen (1832–1904), was a man of letters (and first editor of the Dictionary of National Biography) who came from a family distinguished for public service…her mother, Julia (1846–95)…was the daughter of one and niece of the other five beautiful Pattle sisters…All eight children lived with the parents and a number of servants at 22 Hyde Park Gate, Kensington. Long summer holidays were spent at Talland House in St Ives, Cornwall, and St Ives played a large part in Virginia’s imagination. It was the setting for her novel To the Lighthouse, despite its ostensibly being placed on the Isle of Skye. London and/or St Ives provided the principal settings of most of her novels. In 1895 her mother died unexpectedly, and Virginia suffered her first mental breakdown. Her half-sister Stella took over the running of the household as well as coping with Leslie’s demands for sympathy and emotional support. Stella married Jack Hills in 1897, but she too died suddenly on her return from her honeymoon. The household burden then fell upon Vanessa. Virginia was allowed uncensored access to her father’s extensive library, and from an early age determined to be a writer. Her education was sketchy and she never went to school…Leslie Stephen died in 1904, and Virginia had a second breakdown. While she was sick, Vanessa arranged for the four siblings to move from 22 Hyde Park Gate to 46 Gordon Square, Bloomsbury. At the end of the year Virginia started reviewing with a clerical paper called the Guardian; in 1905 she started reviewing in the Times Literary Supplement and continued writing for that journal for many years. In 1911 Virginia moved to 38 Brunswick Square. Leonard Woolf had joined the Ceylon Civil Service in 1904 and returned in 1911 on leave…Since about 1908 Virginia had been writing her first novel “The Voyage Out” (originally to be called “Melymbrosia”). It was finished by 1913 but, owing to another severe mental breakdown after her marriage, it was not published until 1915 by Duckworth & Gerald’sCo…She then began writing her second novel “Night and Day” – if anything even more conventional – which was published in 1919, also by Duckworth. From 1911 Virginia had rented small houses near Lewes in Sussex, most notably Asheham House. Her sister Vanessa rented Charleston Farmhouse nearby from 1916 onwards. In 1919 the Woolfs bought Monks House in the village of Rodmell. This was a small weather-boarded house (now owned by the National Trust) which they used principally for summer holidays until they were bombed out of their flat in Mecklenburgh Square in 1940 when it became their home.
In 1917 the Woolfs had bought a small hand printing-press in order to take up printing as a hobby and as therapy for Virginia. By now they were living in Richmond (Surrey) and the Hogarth Press was named after their house. Virginia wrote, printed and published a couple of experimental short stories, ‘The Mark on the Wall’ and ‘Kew Gardens’. The Woolfs continued handprinting until 1932, but in the meantime they increasingly became publishers rather than printers. By about 1922 the Hogarth Press had become a business. From 1921 Virginia always published with the Press, except for a few limited editions. 1921 saw Virginia’s first collection of short stories Monday or Tuesday, most of which were experimental in nature. In 1922 her first experimental novel, “Jacob’s Room,” appeared. In 1924 the Woolfs moved back to London, to 52 Tavistock Square. In 1925 Mrs. Dalloway was published, followed by “To the Lighthouse” in 1927, and “The Waves” in 1931. These three novels are generally considered to be her greatest claim to fame as a modernist writer. Her involvement with the aristocratic novelist and poet Vita Sackville-West led to “Orlando” (1928), a roman à clef inspired by Vita’s life and ancestors at Knole in Kent. Two talks to women’s colleges at Cambridge in 1928 led to “A Room of One’s Own” (1929), a discussion of women’s writing and its historical economic and social underpinning. (virginiawoolfsociety.org.uk) In “The Pargiters: A Novel-Essay” she would alternate between sections of fiction and of fact. For the fictional historical narrative, she relied upon experiences of friends and family from the Victorian Age to the 1930s. For the essays, she researched that 50-year span of history. The task, however, of moving between fiction and fact was daunting. Woolf took a holiday from “The Pargiters” to write a mock biography of Flush, the dog of poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Lytton Strachey having recently died, Woolf muted her spoof of his biographical method; nevertheless, “Flush” (1933) remains both a biographical satire and a lighthearted exploration of perception, in this case a dog’s.
In 1935 Woolf completed “Freshwater,” an absurdist drama based on the life of her great-aunt Julia Margaret Cameron. Featuring such other eminences as the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and the painter George Frederick Watts, this riotous play satirizes high-minded Victorian notions of art. Meanwhile, Woolf feared she would never finish “The Pargiters.” Alternating between types of prose was proving cumbersome, and the book was becoming too long. She solved this dilemma by jettisoning the essay sections, keeping the family narrative, and renaming her book “The Years.”…Desperate to finish, Woolf lightened the book with poetic echoes of gestures, objects, colours, and sounds and with wholesale deletions, cutting epiphanies for Eleanor Pargiter and explicit references to women’s bodies. Woolf’s trimming muted the book’s radicalism, “The Years” (1937) became a best seller. Woolf wrote a verse play about the history of English literature. Her next novel, “Pointz Hall” (later retitled “Between the Acts”), would include the play as a pageant performed by villagers and would convey the gentry’s varied reactions to it. As another holiday from Fry’s biography, Woolf returned to her own childhood with “A Sketch of the Past,” a memoir about her mixed feelings toward her parents and her past and about memoir writing itself. During the bombing of London in 1940 and 1941, she worked on her memoir and “Between the Acts.” In her novel, war threatens art and humanity itself, and, in the interplay between the pageant—performed on a June day in 1939—and the audience, Woolf raises questions about perception and response. Despite Between the Acts’s affirmation of the value of art, Woolf worried that this novel was “too slight” and indeed that all writing was irrelevant when England seemed on the verge of invasion and civilization about to slide over a precipice. Facing such horrors, a depressed Woolf found herself unable to write. The demons of self-doubt that she had kept at bay for so long returned to haunt her. On March 28, 1941, fearing that she now lacked the resilience to battle them, she walked behind Monk’s House and down to the River Ouse, put stones in her pockets, and drowned herself. “Between the Acts” was published posthumously later that year. (britannica.com)
About Director Sally Potter
Sally Potter made her first 8mm film aged fourteen. She has since written and directed nine feature films, as well as many short films (including “Thriller” and “Play”) and a television series, and has directed opera (“Carmen” for the ENO in 2007) and other live work. Her background is in choreography, music, performance art and experimental film. “Orlando” (1992), Sally Potter’s bold adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s classic novel, first brought her work to a wider audience. It was followed by “The Tango Lesson” (1996), “The Man Who Cried” (2000), “Yes” (2004), “Rage” (2009) and “Ginger & Rosa” (2012),and “The Party” (2017). Her latest film, “The Roads Not Taken” premiered at Berlin Film Festival in 2020. Sally Potter is known for innovative form and risk-taking subject matter and has worked with many of the most notable cinema actors of our time. Sally Potter’s films have won over forty international awards and received both Academy Award and BAFTA nominations. She has had full career retrospectives of her film and video work at the BFI Southbank, London, MoMA, New York, and the Cinematheque, Madrid. She was awarded an OBE in 2012. Her book “Naked Cinema – Working with Actors” was published by Faber & Faber in March, 2014. Sally Potter co-founded her production company Adventure Pictures with producer Christopher Sheppard. (sallypotter.com)