The Stars Were Bright…
Last night on the Criterion Channel, I streamed the 1992 film “Orlando,” starring Tilda Swinton and written and directed by Sally Potter. The film, loosely adapted from “Orlando: A Biography” written by Virgina Woolfe, is a mini epic period drama that makes great use of Swinton’s amazing talents, is extremely well crafted and full of personality (which we all know, goes a long way). The movie is a gender-bending, gender fluid piece of filmmaking before gender fluidity was even really a thing. From start to finish, Potter weaves in and out of time periods, breaks the fourth wall, and tells a tale is fresh and exciting as any period piece I’ve ever seen. “Orlando” is a testament to female filmmakers as a necessity in the world of cinema, and proof that woman can direct ANY genre and not miss any of the essential beats of those genres.
In the opening of the film we see the titular Orlando sitting under a tree with several pieces of paper and a writing quill in hand. We get our first breaking of the fourth wall, and a real sense of the tone of this film, one that runs between drama and light comedy. So many of these types of period pieces are so serious in their tone. There may be lighter moments but the overall vibe of most period films is proper manners and mannerisms. “Orlando” doesn’t all together scrap these moments, however, does well to subvert whenever possible. Now I have not read the Woolfe novel, so when the film time traveled the way it did, I will admit I was a bit confused. This did not take me out of the story, as the tone of the film was just so bright and airy. Swinton is such a fantastic performer, and so easily let’s the viewer in on the joke. At the midpoint in the story, we transform with her and continue on, embodying the performance as we all fly through the narrative.
The script for this movie was such a breath of fresh air for me. I loved how it moved from scene to scene. How effortlessly the story moved from one century to the next, and just how much trust Potter put into the audience. This is a film that doesn’t hold your hand. Potter’s direction is just as breezy. There’s a sense of control in each scene in the film. There is life in each scene and sequence. The scenes never seem busy or overwhelming. The characters come in measured and come out brimming. One of my favorite scenes is when Orlando is in the company of several men, all misogynists. Swinton is so good in this scene. A Potter’s direction is spot on. It’s these little moments that add up to make this a film worth watching over and over again.