Melbourne International Film Festival Review: Orlando (UK, 1992) is a meandering look at gender studies in history

Blur may have sung about “girls who are boys who like boys to be girls,” but it was writer, Virginia Woolf who got there first. Her short novel, Orlando is about a young, aristocratic man who wakes up one day and discovers he’s become a woman. It was a novel that was written by Woolf for her lover, Vita Sackville-West and later adapted into a 1992 film called Orlando. It sees Tilda Swinton playing the titular character in a fine, androgynous performance but that’s really all there is to it.

This film is directed and written by Sally Potter. It is updated for modern audiences with an extra part at the end where Orlando is a liberated, contemporary woman. But first, this film shows Orlando as a privileged, aristocratic youth living in the 17th century.

Orlando catches the eye of the virginal Queen Elizabeth I (played by a rough and tumble, Quentin Crisp.) The monarch tells Orlando that he should not grow old. So Orlando is forced to remain suspended in time as an attractive youth. Swinton breaks down the fourth wall at different points and tells the audience about the boy’s exploits, adventures and opinions.

After the Queen dies Orlando retires to one long and fateful slumber. He wakes up and discovers that he has become a woman. No explanation is offered as to why this is the case (but this is hardly surprising because no real explanation was given regarding Orlando’s fountain of youth either.) The only thing that defines this current turn of events is the casual line, “Same person. No difference at all. Just a different sex.”

This is not entirely true. In reality, this transformation has huge ramifications for Orlando’s place in society. As a woman, Orlando cannot inherit the Queen’s fortune. She is also proposed marriage but rejects this, and instead seeks solace in the arms of an American lover (Billy Zane).

This film is visually lush and sumptuous. And while it is interesting to see this exploration of different attitudes changing through time as well as the restraints that were placed on different classes and sexes, it is also one that is too slow and meandering to have a coherent point. Orlando’s story is enchanted and dream-like but don’t expect to be beguiled by his/her gifts because this is one that is all style and very little substance.

Review score: TWO AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

The Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) is running until the 20th of August, with Orlando screening on the 14th of August. For tickets and more details on these screenings, head HERE.