Why ‘Orlando’ is an overlooked queer classic

Liam Taft /
Sep 12, 2017 / Film & TV

This month marks 25 years since Orlando – the film adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s gender-bending novel – premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September 1992.

After taking $5 million at the box office and garnering two Oscar nominations, Sally Potter’s take on Woolf’s subversive fantasy biography has grown in statue in the quarter of a century following its premiere. It’s become an integral – and often overlooked – addition to the queer canon.

Woolf addressed Orlando (1928) to her female lover, the poet and bisexual socialite Vita Sackville-West; she was the model for the androgynous Lord Orlando, in what has been described as “the longest love letter in the world.” Woolf was perhaps one of the most respected novelists of the 20th century, known for her contributions to modernism, feminism, and gynocriticism. Orlando is one of her lesser-known novels, but also amongst her most subversive and profound.

Fantasy is the genre in which Orlando’s roots lie. It tells the story of 16th Century aristocrat Lord Orlando, who is told “do not fade, do not wither, do not grow old” by Queen Elizabeth I. We see Orlando as an as an aspiring Elizabethan poet and an ambassador for Charles II in Constantinople – before he miraculously switches sex. Lady Orlando is an 18th Century aristocrat acquainted with the most revered poets of the Augustan period, before falling in love with an American at the dawn of the industrial revolution, and finally becoming a critically acclaimed author in Woolf’s time, all whilst barely ageing a day. However, Orlando manages to transcend its fantasy origins: it’s a compelling meditation on gender identity, melancholia, and the changing landscape of human experience.

Directed by Sally Potter, the 1992 film adaptation is tinted with the spirit of the gender politics of the 70s and 80s and lies on the cusp of the New Queer Cinema movement (B. Ruby Rich coined the term the same month that Orlando premiered.) Potter foregrounds themes of sexual mutability, casting gay icon Quentin Crisp in the role of Queen Elizabeth I and Tilda Swinton as Orlando. She updates the novel to fit the film’s contemporary context: no longer does Orlando become an acclaimed writer in the 20s; rather, Potter imagines how she would have lived in the 90s, describing her “slightly androgynous appearance that women of the period aspire to.” It’s a deft and seamless progression from the source material.

Peppered with sly glances towards the camera, Orlando is undeniably meta, its fourth-wall-breaking style inspired, according to the director, by Woolf’s habit of directly addressing the reader. It’s refreshingly silly, refusing to let the novel’s stature overshadow its humour. Praise must also be given to Aleksei Rodionov’s evocative cinematography, which manages to be epic and restrained in equal measure, tying these vignettes beautifully together with a subtle hand. Undeniably, this is a beautiful film, but what stands out most, however, is Tilda Swinton’s “non-performance.” In an article for The Telegraph, she writes: “In my adolescent fantasy I read this book and believed it was a hallucinogenic, interactive biography of my own life and future”. It’s as if the role was made for her; with her androgynous appearance and confident grasp of character (although less subtle than her work since), she truly brings Woolf’s dazzling prose to life.

Orlando is a film that endures not only for its progressive politics, but because the work of those behind and in front of the camera has filtered into the mainstream as a result of its success. Costume designer Sandy Powell was nominated for an Oscar for her designs and has since gone on to win three; she now works closely with Martin Scorsese and has designed for a number of his films. The most recognisable impact of the film has been on Swinton’s career. She has exploded into the mainstream: her work on The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, We Need to Talk About Kevin, and, most recently, A Bigger Splash, has cemented her status as one of the finest actresses working in film, in both mainstream and indie spheres. Orlando was one of her most important early roles, enabling her to display emotional intensity and a witty sense of humour. More broadly, we can see the artful production design in Wes Anderson’s oeuvre, or Coppola’s new-wave Marie Antoinette, and the narrative’s broad scope in the time-travelling plot of Cloud Atlas. However, none are quite as ambitious or grand as Potter’s adaptation.

In order to assess the film’s impact, we must also look to its gender politics. As she stares into a mirror, poring over her new female form, Orlando looks at the camera and utters the film’s most famous lines: “Same person. No difference. Just a different sex.” Admittedly, the language and syntax here is a little clunky – but these are incredibly profound words. It shows a filmmaker unafraid to be frank about sex, gender, and queer politics. It’s a brash statement tinted by the rise of queer theory and feels grounded to its radical origins.

It would be reductive to suggest that Orlando is merely about gender, but it’s what shines through the fog of sadness that pervades the film. Today we have depictions of the transgender community such as The Danish Girl, Transparent, and Tangerine. Although they’re still problematic, they all lend themselves to this film. Orlando demonstrated that gender fluid depictions on screen can be artful, gloriously camp, and profitable. Sally Potter’s adaptation helped prove that these films have an audience – one that in 2017 should be grateful for the seeds that Orlando planted. 25 years since its premiere, we need to celebrate Orlando for its contribution to the queer canon and, more importantly, for introducing the world to the gift that is Tilda Swinton.

Get Volume #20 here.

Words by Liam Taft

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