Will Kay: Tilda Swinton is a Captivating “Orlando”

Posted on April 25, 2013


Orlando (1992) is a mesmerisingly beautiful film. Based on Virginia Woolf’s novel of the same name, the story follows the life of Orlando over 400 years, two continents and two genders. While the story isn’t particularly well told, the themes and ideas of the story are successfully imparted. What really makes this film worth watching is the combination of Tilda Swinton’s androgynous beauty (who plays the title character, Orlando), stunning photography, brilliant period costuming and great sets and locations.

Androgyne, Tilda Swinton, portraying Orlando.

Androgyne, Tilda Swinton, portraying Orlando.

The movie begins with Orlando as a young nobleman in Elizabethan times. In fact, Orlando is a lover of Elizabeth I. After her death, Orlando has his heart broken by Sasha, a Russian princess. After a brief dalliance with poetry, we see Orlando travel, as an ambassador, to the far east. Where after failing to take part in a war, Orlando turns into a woman; Orlando is the same person in every way other than a bodily transformation into a woman. She returns to England, where she launches herself into the society of poets. At this time (the eighteenth century) because of her sex she can’t own property, a solution would be to marry (there is an offer by an archduke, which is declined). From the mist (literally) arrives a dashing lover, Shelmerdine (Billy Zane), who she decides not to marry, although, she has fallen pregnant. She gives birth to a daughter and publishes a memoir. Throughout the whole movie, over the hundreds of years, Orlando remains physically the same age.

The way the story is told makes it quite difficult to follow and leaves a lot of setting in terms of time indefinite and unexplained. Catapulting through the centuries obscures some aspects of the story that rely on time-sensitive social mores.  The poor sound mixing means that much of the dialogue that I assume drives the emotion and themes of the film is lost. Though, one theme and the most important theme the mutability of gender is explored successfully. The consistency in the character of Orlando throughout the sex swap and the believability through both sexes implies that the differences between sexes aren’t biological, but they are ascribed by society.

Swinton breaking the fourth wall.

Tilda Swinton plays Orlando with an arresting intensity and is perfectly suited to the role. These characteristics of Tilda Swinton’s performance are rendered wonderfully by frequent extreme close-ups, where Swinton breaks the fourth-wall staring directly into the camera. Another great performance is that of Billy Zane as Shelmerdine. He almost manages to match Tilda Swinton’s intensity in terms of seduction.

The setting in the East was realised in Uzbekistan in a pristine historical site. This is an example of the perfectly selected locations and production aspect of the film. Not only were the locations perfect, the costuming was historically varied yet stylistically similar rendering a continuity throughout the centuries that the film passes through. All of the visual aspects of the film were triumphant and breathtaking.

Orlando in the East.

Overall the film reminds me of another period film Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette which was amazing visually but failed to take advantage of great source material. Much the same can be said of Orlando, it is a must-see film because it is so beautiful, not because the story is well told.

Will Kay is You’re Dripping Egg’s co-creator. His column, Nothing Unnecessary bar the Unnecessary, in which he looks a little to hard at things that just don’t matter, is released every second Wednesday. 

Do you see sex as mutable? Voice your concerns/support in the comments.