This pristine re-issue is arthouse counterprogramming during a period when blockbusters often seem to disappoint.
A unique, very elegant and sometimes witty European co-production, Orlando, first released in 1992, stars Tilda Swinton, Billy Zane, and Quentin Crisp, and hones into the spirit of expressive Virginia Woolf's 1928 novel. An approach that is sharp in tone, unlike of the refined trust in the source material by esteemed literary screen adapters like Merchant & Ivory.
Director and writer Sally Potter brings something provocative and uncompromising to the unpreachy tale of the titular ageless character (the quite versatile Swinton of Julia, I Am Love and Michael Clayton). One who progresses through some four centuries of British history, experiencing a variety of lives and relationships along the way, and even changing sex. You see, he is commanded to remain forever young by Queen Elizabeth I (Crisp).
Swinton's odd, androgynous beauty seems to aid her screen presence here as Potter, without feminist or political obstruction, swiftly moves things from medieval London to the present with stops in Elizabethan and Victorian eras.
There are visits to places like Middle East/central Asia where Orlando serves as British envoy for a decade at the court of the Khan (Lothaire Bluteau). Potter's singular vision is definitely in sync with her cast and crew with aesthetic aura deeply felt especially in the design and set departments, as well as Sandy Powell's detailed costumes. Part of the shoot was done in Uzbekistan as well as St. Petersburg to help instill a credible sense of time and place.
Crisp, audacious way back in the New York City theatre scene, is quite convincing as the formidable regal lady, while a savvy, attractive Swinton curtly remains curtly watchable through a wry exploration of sexual identity. However, she is more persuasive before the character is truly liberated, after sacrifice and loss, not just where status and estate are concerned. Zane appears as a somewhat zealous, hirsute American Orlando has relations along the way.
Obviously, the studio feels there is still some big screen attention that Orlando deserves as it might be viewed as a lost international art-house favorite. Given its scope and the stature of its London-born star to embody an intriguing character, one that Woolf has written like her novel with rare trenchant sensitivity.