A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 564 – Orlando

Orlando – September 15th, 2011

I don’t recall when I first saw this movie. I have the impression of having seen it in college, but whenever I think back through my classes I can’t really pinpoint which class I would have seen it in. I was an English major and I took a lot of classes that featured films. I went to a women’s college and so a lot of the classes ended up touching on gender roles even if that wasn’t the focus. And I do not remember what class I saw this for. I’m fairly sure it wasn’t something I picked up on my own and I have a vague memory of being told something about the history of the time periods. But regardless of why I saw it and when, as soon as I did see it I fell in love with it. It’s stuck in my head, probably forever. I bought the soundtrack and listened to it on endless loop for a while. And I became convinced that Tilda Swinton is one of the most amazing actresses I have ever seen or will ever see.

The movie is based on a novel by Virginia Woolf. I’ve never read it and I really should, though from what I read while watching the movie, there are some rather substantial differences between the two. But I do like that the movie’s director, Sally Potter, was very cognizant of the fact that there were differences and that the changes were quite deliberate. It is as I have said before (such as in yesterday’s review): The page and the screen are different mediums and you have to use them differently to tell a story. Having not read the original book, I can’t speak to how good an adaptation this is. But I can speak to whether or not I think the movie itself has a clear vision and does a solid job with it. And I think it does. I also think it’s a beautiful bit of film regardless.

The story follows Orlando, who begins as a young man living with his parents in a manor in the British countryside near the end of Elizabeth I’s reign. When the queen visits she becomes fixated on him and eventually bestows upon him a house and lands of his own, provided that he never grow old. And so he doesn’t. Years go by. Decades. And Orlando remains the same, just with new fashions and new politics and new people surrounding him. Until one night, after a battle in Turkey where he is serving as an ambassador, Orlando falls asleep and wakes up as a woman. And as she says at the time “Same person. No difference at all… just a different sex.” Being accustomed to two hundred years of rights, respect and privileges accorded to men, Orlando finds being a woman to be rather different. For one, she cannot own property in her own name as a woman and besides, legally she’s considered dead. And so she lives in the house Queen Elizabeth gave her while the courts wrestle over the issue of her existence and some time later she finds that unless she has a son she will lose everything. But she doesn’t have a son. She has a very short affair with a man she meets in a field and he won’t stay. So instead we move on, watching Orlando move through time until the modern day. And she is still as young as she always was. She is slightly androgynous and seems to have embraced it. She has a child, a daughter, and she goes back to her house which she no longer owns and she publishes her story, that took her centuries to write. And that is the story. Just a little meta, there at the end.

There are two moments in this movie that make me tear up. One is the end, with Orlando and her daughter. And one is earlier in, when Orlando runs off into a hedge maze after being told she’s going to lose everything. It’s worth mentioning here that the soundtrack for this movie is absolutely beautiful and that the track playing during the labyrinth scene is key to its emotional impact. But really, I can’t watch it without feeling something. There’s no dialogue and no plot points, just Orlando running in the maze. And it is sad and beautiful at the same time. Were I to be writing about this for a class I’d have things to say about metaphors and the like, but I leave you to draw your own conclusions. All I can say is that it is one of my favorite moments in the movie.

And really, it’s saying something that I put that moment above all others since I love this whole movie. The earlier scenes are difficult, with Orlando a privileged young man of means. He’s never had to face much criticism and he’s always had money and he’s never been denied. The movie does an excellent job mirroring many moments from his early life into his later life, showing Orlando the opposite side of his previous actions and words. He tells a young woman, a Russian princess, that she belongs to him because he adores her. When the tables are turned, Orlando of course is appalled by the very idea. I have no idea how much of an impression this sort of thing might make on a man watching it, but as a woman watching it I can’t help but sigh a little. Because really, some of what Orlando learns feels obvious to me. And much of it is, by its nature, dated. It is taking place well in the past, after all. At the same time, having it set out there, that a person was (and is) judged not on merit but on gender, and that the same person with the same qualities and the same intellect and the same physical fitness and the same everything but gender might suddenly be disqualified for all manner of things? That’s an important point to make, regardless of the time period.

It is impossible to truly capture the spirit of this movie in a review and I suspect that reading the book would be an entirely different experience. A good one, I hope, but different. Because so much of what makes this movie magical to me is in the music and in Tilda Swinton’s performance. I truly enjoy what Sally Potter put on the screen, regardless of its changes to the original work it’s based on. And the concept of it is sound. It doesn’t need a boat load of back story or explanation. What does it matter why Orlando doesn’t age or by what mechanism he becomes she? It doesn’t. And the movie doesn’t really invite you to wonder. It is simply stated: This happened. This happened and this is the life that was led as a result.

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September 15, 2011 - Posted by | daily reviews | , , ,

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