Twenty years on, it is well worth revisiting Orlando, Sally Potter’s 1992 adaptation of a Virginia Woolf novel. Subtly convincing the audience that a person’s sex does not define them, the film achieves something which, in 2012, society is still far from accepting.
Orlando never grows old: when the film begins in the 1600s, he is a young man, and is still young when the film ends in the late twentieth century. The only difference is that Orlando is now a woman. Although changing sex certainly affects the way that Orlando is treated by other people, the film is remarkable in that the audience is prepared for this change, and experience it less as those around Orlando experience it, and more as Orlando him/herself.
From the very beginning of the film, the audience develops an affinity with Orlando and a sense of gender as something elusive and therefore of lesser importance than usual. As the film opens, the camera tracks in on Orlando, who is sitting under a tree. A voiceover narrator introduces the character, but when the camera finally reaches a close-up on the character’s face, Orlando turns his head to look directly into the camera and speaks, interrupting the narrator. Orlando is no longer ‘he’ but ‘I’: self (and personal experience) subtly asserts itself as more significant than gender. Less subtle is the fact that this male character is being played by a well-known female actress, Tilda Swinton, reminding the audience of how easy it is for adult women to pass as attractive young men. The narrator states from the beginning that there is ‘no doubt’ that Orlando is male, in spite of the feminine appearance that young men liked to adopt in Elizabethan times.
The gender bending continues apace. In another early scene, a minor character who appears much older and more virile sings in a falsetto a song about the beauty of Eliza, a queen who is now old and ugly. Queen Elizabeth, in turn, is played by Quentin Crisp: the fact that an old woman can be convincingly played by a man reinforces the point that signs of gender fluctuate with age. The Queen chooses Orlando as her ‘favourite’, another reversal of the more common scenario in which powerful men keep much younger women for their amusement. Elizabeth gives Orlando an estate to live on, with the humorous proviso that he not grow old: Orlando unexpectedly conforms to this stipulation, remaining the same age for over 300 years. Ironically, it is not age but a change of sex that forces him to relinquish his estate: as his advisors explain, in terms of property ownership being female is the equivalent to being dead.
Orlando’s sex change takes place overnight, as if by magic, during his ten-year diplomatic stint in an unnamed Middle Eastern country. Although Europeans once associated the Orient with femininity, the film does not reinforce the stereotype: if anything, it reverses it. When Orlando first meets his eloquent and manly Middle-Eastern host, it is Orlando as representative of the British aristocracy who appears feminine, with his powdered wigs and awkward waffling. Notably, Orlando is still a man when the city is attacked and finds himself ill-suited to fighting alongside his host. Orlando finally adopts the local style of dress, exchanging his ornate European dress for simple swathes of cream fabric, and immediately appears more modern and mature.
When Orlando returns to England as a woman, the reaction is predictably one of astonishment. She is still the same person as before: indeed, when she looked at herself in the mirror on morning of her transformation, she downplayed the importance of gender, saying that ‘nothing has changed’. For this reason, the change in the way others relate to her is all the more astonishing. Having seen Tilda Swinton dressed as a man for the entire film, the audience has the strange impression of feeling as though they are watching a man in drag when they see Tilda Swinton in a dress. She continues periodically to address the audience directly, however, emphasising her subjectivity, and that it is the person who matters, and their experiences, not their sex. The clothing of a woman in the 1700s and 1800s seems only slightly more fussy and restrictive than that of a man: instead, it is people’s attitudes to gender that makes her experience of life as a woman so different. She speaks to Alexander Pope, whose experience of uneducated and silly women makes him dismiss an entire sex: he cannot speak to Orlando as an equal, as he cannot see past her gender and consider her as a person. Orlando discovers that the only way for her to maintain her property is to have a son, which she does, by the twentieth century.
The end of the film brings its reflections on gender full-circle. The voiceover narrator is back again, this time noting that in the late twentieth century, women favour an androgynous appearance. Orlando now dresses in a modern unisex style, and rides a motorcycle. Her child is in the sidecar, and appears at first to be a boy. When they arrive at Orlando’s estate, the child is revealed to be a girl.
Orlando‘s treatment of gender manages to be both understated and radical: it is so natural in its treatment of gender fluidity that people who are rigid in their attitudes to gender appear unnatural. It remains a visually sumptuous and intellectually intriguing film.