I am shocked to realize that this film is nearly 25 years old. I saw this in the movies on the big screen in New York City when it came out in the early 1990s. I can't remember now if it was a limited engagement at a theatre like the Angelica back then, but I certainly don't think it was in a lot of theatres since it is a rather "off the beaten path" type of film.
Nonetheless, I don't know why I had never purchased this until now. It's such a creative, eccentric, artfully filmed work and makes me laugh every time I see it, despite some of the darker messages about the nature of war and gender equality (or lack thereof).
I'm not a big Virginia Woolf fan but, as the exception, I loved the book and this film, though some creative license needed to be taken to cover the 400 years of Orlando's story in a limited timeframe.
It opens with Orlando, played androgynously by Tilda Swinton, as a young man and in the throes of a young man's flights of fancy. Then, we meet Queen Elizabeth, played amazingly by Quentin Crisp (the writer). You see where this is going? The lines of gender demarcation have been blurred already.
As a man, Orlando is the heir to wealth, property, opportunity and reign over the opposite sex. When Orlando claims Princess Sasha as his, she asks, "But why?" To which Orlando replies, "Because I adore you." Male entitlement as seen from a male perspective.
Later, when Orlando is a woman and the Archduke Harry has his sights on her, he proclaims, "I am England. And you are mine." To which Orlando asks, "On what grounds?"
"That I adore you," he replies, to Orlando's offense. Male entitlement as seen from a female perspective.
Orlando's abrupt gender switching renders her "legally dead" and therefore, unable to hold any property, whatsoever. "Ah. Fine," she responds, as if it is nothing at all. To which the officials continue, "You are now a female. Which amounts to much the same thing."
Yes, the story is weird but it works. Why did Orlando change? We don't know. But that's not the point of this. This is a serious subject that is transformed by humor, the most beautiful, if at times, outlandish, costumes, and magnificent scenery. Tilda Swinton is particularly funny with delivering Orlando's reactions to various circumstances, even providing some little asides to give us a chuckle or some food for thought. And to throw in a redeeming, though flawed, male character, Billy Zane rides in on his high horse as Shelmerdine, the American freedom fighter who is always chasing the future.
This is an art film with lots of brilliant dialogue and lots of hidden gems you might get on the second or third viewings. Every time I watch this, I pick up more and more of the treasure chest of fine details and each viewing becomes richer and richer.
This film is not for everyone – I will concede that, but for those people who can appreciate all the beauty in the strange history of Orlando, this will keep delivering with each viewing.