Looking Back At ORLANDO - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At ORLANDO

"Do not fade. Do not wither. Do not grow old." Two out of three ain't bad for Tony.
Orlando was a challenging novel when it was written. It’s still not by any means an easy read. Virginia Woolf wrote it partly as a historical paeon to her lover, Vita Sackville-West, partly as an unusual historical fantasy, partly as a story of art and how its objectives and scope change over time, and partly as an exploration of love, life, sex and gender.

As a novel, it does quite a lot of heavy lifting. It’s a mark of Woolf’s creative paring-down to the essentials that Orlando doesn’t collapse under the weight of its own intentions.

The point about which is that it has a lot of aspects, and what you take from it depends largely on which of those aspects most speak to your experience.

If you’re in love, it makes sense on that level. If you’re interested in history, it will give you a warm and bright trip into the past (though not necessarily an especially accurate one, as history bends to art in this instance).

If you’re a man, a woman, gay, bisexual or trans, you’ll take a special meaning away from Orlando. But if you’re a writer or an artist, it will speak most to your convictions, your belief in your art, your utter, howling despair when you realise that what you’ve created is vacuous nonsense, and the ever-changing demands of a public that never quite knows what it wants until it sees it.

The point of all of THAT is that translating Orlando from text to film is an extremely complicated thing to try to do.

More than just delivering a visual sense of your intention – and Woolf’s, come to that – you have to drive a path through the material that can either replicate the multi-faceted appeal of the novel, or choose the themes that most speak to you and make the movie about those in particular. That won’t get you the SAME Orlando as the novel, but it still stands an above-average chance of giving you AN Orlando to which audiences can respond.

That second course is exactly what Sally Potter did in 1992 with her movie adaptation of Orlando. Described as “loosely based” on Woolf’s novel, it’s based on a good heaping handful of the events in the book, but it drives its plot clearly through some of the key events in the lead character’s life, putting the whole literary and creative themes at least a little on a convenient back burner and foregrounding the evolving emotional experiences of a very extraordinary life.

Extraordinary? How extraordinary?

Well, pretty extraordinary, as lives go.
Orlando begins life as a young, callow nobleman in the court of Elizabeth I. On her deathbed, the Queen (played in a landmark performance by Quentin Crisp) bequeaths Orlando and his heirs a piece of land and a generous financial settlement, on the condition that Orlando does not fade, or wither, or grow old.

Orlando, being both young and callow and something of a romantic would-be poet… does just that.

There’s never, in either the movie or the book, any technological or fantasy explanation for precisely WHY Orlando stops ageing. He just does.

He retires to his new house, and spends a couple of hundred years writing poetry.

Potter maintains a degree of accuracy to the novel by having Orlando try to befriend a poet he admires, only to show him his own verses and have them ridiculed. Everyone, it seems, really is a critic.

It’s fair to say that Orlando takes the rejection badly, signing on to be the English ambassador to the Ottoman empire – as you do.

In some respects, this is a perfectly observed evocation of the artist’s storm-out drama whenever they feel their work has been unduly criticised. Sally Potter though is pretty ruthless with the novel, jettisoning anything that doesn’t progress Orlando’s story. In the novel, Orlando at the age of 30 has a miraculous, spontaneous, overnight change of sex from male to female. Again, there’s never any particular explanation of how or why this happens, but it happens when Orlando’s around 30 and he (then she) lives the rest of her several centuries of documented lifetime as a woman.

In the movie version, Orlando gets a few hundred years of magnificent solitude in the house the Queen bequeaths him, trying to be a poet and failing, and makes it all the way to the Ottoman Empire before getting involved in a diplomatic incident. After which, Orlando – falls asleep.

And then wakes up, almost a week later, as a woman. Again, no explanation, but Orlando actress Tilda Swinton plays the shock, surprise, and not a little excitement at the change with a perfect balance. It’s much more balanced in the movie than it is in the book, and the week-long sleep is almost treated as a pupal stage – the male caterpillar Orlando retreats into sleep, only to awaken as the female, butterfly Orlando.
Swinton herself had always been interested in androgyny, and she brings that to the role in a way that not only pinned her to the acting consciousness of a whole generation, but also served the piece superbly well. Swinton makes for a believable Elizabethan youth, and, later in the movie, an equally believable, questing, innocent-eyed woman as the Lady Orlando.

The later sections of the movie are particularly poignant even today, because when Orlando becomes Lady Orlando out of the sight of British authorities, and then returns to them, she’s met with suspicion, charges of not having told the truth, of having always BEEN a woman and so not having the right to her inheritance, gained under the “pretence” of manhood.

It’s this, the reaction of the wide world to the perceived change in her, and the perceived betrayal of the public it entails, that makes the film version of Orlando probably quite as long-lasting in its own way as the novel is. They have somewhat different leading tones, to be sure, but they’re making very similar points, and the Sally Potter film actually takes the wiser course.

While Orlando the novel deals with lots of subjects but tends to put art and criticism front and centre (or maybe that’s just what this reviewer takes from it most prominently – it is, after all, that kind of multi-faceted novel), the film, sticking closer to Orlando as a real character, rather than an expression of art, focuses more on the way in which she copes with her change, and the reactions of the world.

For her own part, Orlando, while never knowingly having wished for the change, seems to grow entirely into the experience, a kind of latter-day literary version of Tiresias from Greek myth. The way the world responds to the change though tends universally towards suspicion of some deceit. Centuries pass, she maintains the poor luck in love that seems to have dogged her since her days as an Elizabethan youth (quite what Vita Sackville-West would have made of such a judgment remains uncertain).

But for all the film of Orlando sticks closer to the character than the swirling multiplicity of themes present in the novel, Potter’s narrative does not let the movie escape the importance of creativity or criticism altogether. By the end of the film, Orlando has a daughter (and whether her daughter is a conscious or an unconscious mark of approval of the change of Orlando’s sex – a “yes” to the power of womanhood – is regularly debated by film scholars), but she still has not been able to give up her versifying, despite regularly having them dismissed.

When, finally, she finds a publisher who not only agrees to take her verses, but also declares them quite good, it finally sets the seal on Orlando’s life and happiness. Having come so very far, and changed more about how society views her than about herself, Orlando reaches for a kind of happiness that only those who create from both the mind and the body can fully appreciate. She has that gift – she has created a life and kept it by her, and she has created art, and finally, having waited for time to roll around, and also having worked with diligence to improve her skills, she has achieved the “yes” of critical approval for her art. The fact that the approving publisher is played by the same actor as the initially scornful poet (Heathcote Williams) is one of those moments of satirical, point-making joy the film allows itself to underscore one of Woolf’s biggest points.

And so the movie leaves Orlando, much as the book does, content, creative, understood and lauded to some degree that makes her happy and keeps her going.
If you’re going to watch Orlando, it helps to have read the book, and to understand a little about Virginia Woolf, her feminism, and her love, especially for Sackville-West. But you can watch it blind of all that and still get an impressive sense of the themes of the piece.

Sally Potter takes a disciplined course through the sprawling jewel of the book, and tells a story that focuses on innocence and how it grows to experience and understanding not just with much more time than most of us are granted, but with the change in perspective that comes of seeing the world through the eyes of the other sex.

There are points along Orlando’s way when in her female incarnation she has cause to weep for the callow, casual callousness she was unaware of in herself while male. And especially in the surprise that hits her when faced with the reaction of British society to her change, there are lessons of perspective to be learned.

It’s also beyond exception a beautiful movie. That’s almost its duty, as Quentin Crisp’s Elizabeth is a portrayal of rancid, unwashed decay in power, and the decree of that queen is to resist all the things that make her what she is. She might as well command Orlando to be beautiful and walk only among the beautiful places of the world, and both Sally Potter and the unparalleled Tilda Swinton obey that unspoken mandate.

It’s also significant that while Orlando as an Elizabethan youth might qualify as androgynous beneath clothing that intensifies the blurring of gender lines – earrings, jewellery, stockings, garters and the like – once Orlando becomes a woman, she never seriously strives to return to such androgyny, even in spite of the lies and calumnies the world throws at her in its ignorance.

There is visual beauty in Orlando, and there is storytelling beauty, Potter and Swinton working like two cellists to contrive out of a sprawling, intense novel a story that not only makes sense, but plays notes of deeper character, and yearning, and strength through experience. In a sense, while Orlando the novel worked in its time (the 1920s) as an exercise in creation talking about the variety of creativity and criticism, between them Sally Potter and Tilda Swinton created an Orlando that speaks to emotional learning, to transition, to stepping out from behind societal expectation and finding creativity in every way available to you.

You could argue that, made as it was in 1992, Potter’s Orlando was still a good 30 years ahead of its time, while Woolf’s was a hundred years too early to be fully appreciated. Re-watch Orlando today, in our world of the bizarre battles LGBTQI+ people still face to be accepted, and trans people in particular (watched today, the change of sex in Orlando feels like a particularly striking trans metaphor of the true life emerging from the societal prison of gender expectation). It will not only bring you pleasure for the sake of its own art. It will stay with you for days or weeks after – and make you want to watch it again.

Watch Orlando today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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