Quest Status: 703 / 1000
TSPDT Rank #500An early-20th century aristocratic woman is reimagined as a 17th-century English nobleman who mysteriously becomes a woman on her 400-year-long journey into the present. Being an unconventional historical fantasy featuring an androgynous actor in the lead role and directed by a woman, it's not a shock that Orlando isn't more well known. To put it in context, remember that at the time of its release, Basic Instinct was riding a wave of sexual controversy, with its brilliant but dangerous bisexual female villain and her provocative leg crossing shot. But what about a film that features a woman playing a man, who transforms into a woman mid-way through the film without warning, only to proclaim "Same person. No difference at all... just a difference sex."
Basic Instinct was the source of much debate and controversy at the time of its release, although Orlando gives the viewer just as much material for consideration and discussion, without the sensational cheap thrills. Orlando (Tilda Swinton) is not a pathological killer, nor is his ambiguous sex portrayed as devious or threatening. He drifts through four centuries almost unnoticed - an unimportant aristocrat who lives a life of leisure and privilege. Sally Potter covers these four centuries briskly, using thematic intertitles such as "Love," "Poetry," and "Politics" to convey shifts in Orlando's life and the accompanying jumps in time. As a result, Orlando often feels like a series of vignettes, a capsule history of England seen through the eyes of the ruling classes.
Based on a novel by the great English writer Virginia Woolf, with the titular character modeled on Woolf's real-life friend and lover Vita Sackville-West, Orlando portrays history not with the sweeping narrative devices of most historical epics, but with the delicate touch of a character study. Orlando has experiences which transcend time and age, but here they are captured as snapshots in a single life, individual moments in time which flow into one another in a cycle which eventually leads us back to the beginning. Orlando is a masterpiece of simplicity, never overwhelming the viewer or forcing ideas into their heads. Orlando is a symbolic character, just as believable a man as she is a woman, whose importance as a trans figure lies in her matter-of-fact gender fluidity. In this sense, audiences today might still not be ready for the ambiguity and fleeting beauty of Sally Potter's time and gender-defying ode to the English aristocracy.