Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Return of Sally Potter’s Orlando

Virginia Woolf was never considered commercial, especially in 1993 when Sally Potter brought her fantastical novel Orlando to the big screen, nearly ten years before Nicole Kidman won an Oscar playing the modernist writer in The Hours. Despite its reputation as her most easily digested work, adapting the century-spanning gender-bending story long seemed a tricky proposition. However, Potter’s Orlando pulled it off surprisingly well, despite her postmodern stylistic flourishes, or perhaps because of them. Seventeen years later, the digitally re-mastered, high def Orlando (trailer here) returns to New York theaters for a revival run beginning this Friday.

Orlando might look feminine, but that was expected of sensitive young Elizabethan men of leisure. Still, Orlando is especially so, to the extent that the Queen herself is so struck by his delicate features, she awards him a grand estate, with the proviso that he: “Do not fade. Do not wither. Do not grow old.” With a considerable fortune at stake, the eternally youthful Orlando honors the terms of the queen’s bequest.

Of course, being immortal gives one a lot of time to kill. At first, Orlando pursues the introspective rewards of poetry, only to be disillusioned by the ingratitude of an established poet whom he had granted an indefinite stipend. To learn something of the world, he accepts a diplomatic post in the Middle East, where in fact, he forges a manly friendship with the local Khan. Orlando’s exotic assignment truly seems to agree with him, until war breaks out. So traumatic is the experience, Orlando mystically transforms his gender, yet the newly minted woman assures the viewers she is the same person on the inside.

At times, Orlando indeed appears to address the audience directly, or perhaps he (and then she) is merely ruminating aloud. It is one of the many ambiguities that should not work but somehow does. Of course, the key to the film is Tilda Swinton’s star-making turn as the eternally youthful protagonist. Coolly detached and eerily androgynous, it is fascinating to revisit her work in Orlando after her recent performance in I Am Love, distinguished by its passion and femininity. Yet, she is oddly compelling when playing Orlando as either gender.

Potter masterfully condenses centuries into ninety-three minutes, evoking both a mock epic spirit and a sense of contemporary irony. She also self-consciously emphasizes the gender issues at play, casting gay literary icon Quentin Crisp as Queen Elizabeth. Yet, for all its knowing intellectual gamesmanship, Orlando is still an absorbing film..

A composer as well as a filmmaker, music always plays an important role in Potter’s films, but in Orlando it plays a critical role pulling the audience into the story. Blending classical and electronic styles, her insinuating score co-composed with David Motion creates an otherworldly atmosphere perfectly suited to her vision. Cinematographer Alexei Rodionov’s rich sweeping visuals also heighten the sense of mystery and romance.

Undeniably the product of an auteur, Orlando is already justly considered Potter’s masterwork. Though her recent films, like Rage and The Man Who Cried pale in comparison, her subversive take on Woolf has lost none of its power. As one of the most technically accomplished indie films of the 1990’s (maybe ever), it is well deserving of its digital rerelease. It opens this Friday (7/23) in New York at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema.