All kinds of clever—Sally Potter’s 1992 film version of Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando is a daring, daunting, playful work of some considerable intellectual force that just misses greatness owing to a lack of emotional weight. That might not be too surprising since the movie attempts to pack 400 years into a 93-minute running time. The story follows Orlando (Tilda Swinton), a young man who finds favor with Queen Elizabeth I (Quentin Crisp). Elizabeth promises Orlando that he may keep his great house and land forever—on the proviso that Orlando never gets old or withers. Surprisingly, he never does, and the film charts Orlando’s subsequent life and adventures in a series of vignettes that take him through the pages of history and on into the present day. Of course, there are complications—like the fact that halfway through the film Orlando turns into a woman. Despite Orlando’s own realization—“The same person, no difference at all, only a different sex”—the law of the land still insists that she cannot own land because that’s forbidden to women (not to mention that she’s 200 years old and therefore should obviously be dead).
Sexual identity, of course, is at the center of the film. That should be obvious from the casting. Not only do we have Swinton (who is never made to look different as man or woman) as Orlando, but also there’s the stunt casting of author and raconteur Quentin Crisp as Elizabeth I. On the one hand, this is for purposes of sexual ambiguity, but at the same time it’s also part and parcel of the movie’s playfully campy nature, since at bottom what we have is an old queen played by, well, an old queen. It’s the sort of thing that makes Orlando an enjoyable film. On the other hand, it’s the deliberately distanced performance of Swinton that cheats the work out of much in the way of an emotional center.
We’re entertained by the film. We cannot delight in its physical look—very much akin to the films of Peter Greenaway (not surprising since Potter used his production designers). We can endlessly discuss the implications of both its feminist and sexually ambivalent agendas. But it’s difficult to ever much care about Orlando him/herself, since the character moves through the story more as a mildly interested spectator than a participant. It’s certainly a great moment of intellectual revelation when Orlando blandly realizes that he hasn’t changed, only his gender, but it’s done so blandly that there’s no kick. Still, on its own merits, it’s a remarkable work.