“She's lived for 400 years and hardly aged a day; but, because this is England, everyone pretends not to notice.”
As viewers, we cannot help but notice her. Orlando has milky skin, flame-red hair and almost alien-like features. And then there’s that gaze – direct, playful, two beams of light from another century. Tilda Swinton has the look of someone dropping in from another world, appropriate for a character who switches seamlessly between genders, inhabiting both with ease.
The film is based on Virginia Woolf’s novel of the same name, originally published in 1928. Married to Leonard Woolf for almost thirty years (until her death in 1942), Virginia Woolf was a key figure in the Bloomsbury Group, known for their liberal views on sexuality. At the time of writing Orlando, Virginia was in the midst of a decade-long relationship with fellow Bloomsbury-ite Vita Sackville-West.
The ‘effect of Vita on Virginia’ according to Sackville-West’s son Nigel Nicolson, ‘is all contained in Orlando, the longest and most charming love letter in literature, in which she explores Vita, weaves her in and out of the centuries, tosses her from one sex to the other, plays with her, dresses her in furs, lace and emeralds, teases her, flirts with her, drops a veil of mist around her’. Vita and Virginia remained close friends long after their sexual relationship had ended. What we are gifted with is a wild and fantastical novel, and its corresponding film, updated and remixed for the end of the 20th century.
What makes Orlando a queer film? Of course, Orlando enjoys romantic and sexual relationships with both men and women, and the character transitions gender midway through the film. Yet we can’t honestly call Orlando a bisexual or trans narrative. Rather, it is queer in its exploration of form, its chronological playfulness, its bold flirtation with its viewers.
Of course, there are also the queer cameos. The iconic Quentin Crisp drags up admirably to play an elderly Queen Elizabeth I, who commands Orlando, a young noble, to stay forever young – leading our protagonist to move as seamlessly between centuries and genders as they do lovers. In a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo, gay pop icon Jimmy Somerville hovers above our Orlando as a skinhead angel. Replete with tacky golden wreath, wings and toga, he looks like he’s been outfitted from a costume shop, injecting the film with a knowing campy silliness.
Camp, androgynous, garish and proud – we hope you love meeting Orlando.
- Kate Wood & Catherine O’Sullivan