In all the areas where Jane Campion's The Piano (1993) succeeds, Sally Potter's Orlando fails dismally.
There is a lot of common ground between the two films: both are non-naturalistic and allegorical costume dramas; both explore female identity in extremis, wildly transforming from catatonia to empowerment, as the world spins and changes. In the case of Orlando (Tilda Swinton), this even includes transforming from male to female.
Orlando, however, is much more of a Brechtian epic than The Piano. Adapting Virginia Woolf's novel, Potter gives us a heroine who sails through time. Her adventures are broken down into emblematic stages, announced by bold inter-titles: Death, Love, Poetry, Politics, Society, Sex, Birth.
It is a profoundly utopian tale, one that places its faith in the ability of special individuals to transcend petty oppression and discover a better, more radical world.
Irony has been one of the great buzzwords of independent filmmaking since the '80s, but Orlando represents the absolute nadir of this trend. Rarely has a film so shamelessly and relentlessly flattered its ideal viewer – which is any viewer who considers him or herself politically hip, sexually sophisticated and far beyond the quaint, pompous illusions of previous societies.
Every scene, every gesture, every line of dialogue indelibly cues us into the film's enlightened point of view. What this means, in effect, is that Potter adopts an arch style – part Peter Greenaway, part Ken Russell – in which every character is either a camp fashion plate (Lothaire Bluteau, Billy Zane), a garrulous free spirit (Heathcote Williams) or a grotesque old fool (John Wood).
Meanwhile, the Nyman-like musical score goes around and around, and the camera shifts stiffly before each immaculately dressed tableau.
Tilda Swinton is Orlando's big problem. Potter obviously loves her haunting, alien eyes and her fine, facial features, since half of the film seems devoted to lingering close-up views of Orlando either sighing, thinking or smouldering. But, touted as Britain's most progressive actor, Swinton is irony personified: her looks to the camera, her sing-song lilt and her posey body language leave no doubt as to how we are meant to read her performance.
On all levels, Orlando is a thoroughly asphyxiating experience.
© Adrian Martin May 1994