Edith's Review of Orlando
The World Is Not All That Changes
When this movie first came out, I had no idea who Quentin Crisp was. I was sixteen when it was released in the US, and I was not much up on gay iconography. However, Gene and Roger did tell us that Queen Elizabeth was to be played by a man in this, and while I don't think they gave us much in the way of details--they figured either we already knew who he was or else we didn't care, I guess--it made perfect sense to me that this should be the case for this movie. I didn't know a lot about the movie, either, and I still haven't read the book, but it struck me that a movie with such obvious emphasis on gender roles could only have been [i]right[/i] if someone cross-dressed in it beyond the title character. The idea that they might change actors for the title character midway through the movie never occurred to me, and I'm glad no one else thought it was a good idea, either.
In 1600, young Orlando (Tilda Swinton) is ordered by Queen Elizabeth I (Crisp, as I said) never to grow old and fade. Somehow, magically, Orlando obeys. He is given a manor in perpetuity for this, and he continues to live in it. He is perhaps a bit young and foolish, even for long decades afterward, but he sees the ages change. (I note that no mention is made of how he survives Cromwell.) During the reign of James I (Dudley Sutton), he falls in love with a Russian woman (Charlotte Valandrey), who leaves him behind when she returns to Russia. During the reign of William (Thom Hoffman) and Mary (Sarah Crowden), he is sent to the court of the Khan (Lothaire Bluteau). And in about the reign of Queen Anne, or maybe George I, Orlando wakes up one morning, and instead of being a young-looking androgynous man, he is a young-looking androgynous woman. As time passes, this becomes a problem--with no male relatives, there is no one to look after the property, and she isn't allowed to do it herself, of course!
Much fuss is made that Billy Zane as Shelmerdine is second-billed despite only being onscreen for perhaps ten minutes. I don't know why. I mean, it's true, but given that Orlando is the only character to survive the whole of the movie, who else is onscreen longer? Queen Elizabeth is arguably one of the most important characters in the story, but given that the story starts three years before she died (yes, I remember when Queen Elizabeth I died), we know she won't be around long. Heck, the fact that she knows it is what drives the story to begin with. We see several monarchs come and go. All sorts of servants and courtiers and so forth. The difference is that, almost alone of the characters in the story, Shelmerdine touches Orlando. Even Euphrosyne, the Russian woman, really only touches his lust and his pride; Shelmerdine touches Orlando the person. He understands her in a way that no one else ever has, even people who know about everything that has happened.
It's a strangely dreamlike film. As I've said, I can't tell you how that corresponds to the book, but it isn't just the sudden switch from male-Orlando to female-Orlando that is unreal. (Though there are worse things than full-frontal Tilda Swinton!) According to IMDb, Orlando's eyes change colour every time there is a major life change, though that's too subtle for me to have spotted it, even on my TV. Maybe if I'd seen it in the theatre. But you know, I've long believed that one of the easiest ways to make your casting seem unworldly is to cast Tilda Swinton. The passage of time is staggered and uneven; it's hard to be sure when certain things are set, because it's hard to be sure if a cut is meant to signify a day or a decade. Someone better acquainted with the costumes of the relevant eras could probably make a better stab of it than I did, but I'm not sure it ever really matters. There is great, staggering passage of time, and Orlando continues throughout it.
Perhaps my favourite part is when Orlando is in the salon with Swift (Roger Hammon) and Pope (Peter Eyre) and Addison (Ned Sherrin). None of them are expressing opinions she herself would have disagreed with when she was a man, but now that she's a woman, she realizes how ridiculous they are. It's worth noting that she does not assume that she is different just because she used to be a man. She knows that women have just as many chances of being intelligent as men do, but they don't have as many chances of showing it. I mean, one of the men expresses scoffing annoyance that his wife is bothering to learn Greek--doesn't she know that she should be content just to be the wife of a Great Man? Who, of course, would never bring her to a salon. She should be content to be the wife of a Great Man and also sit around at home. And even if the men in that room knew Orlando's past, they wouldn't care, because they would believe that she was different because she used to be a he. We are allowed to be smarter than some of those great minds.