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‘Orlando’ (PG-13)By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
June 25, 1993
Virginia Woolf was sweet on Victoria Sackville-West when she wrote "Orlando," a fantastical gender-bender that has been described as "the longest and most charming love letter in literature." A bisexual aristocrat in real life, Sackville-West was the model for the androgynous Lord Orlando, a time-traveling transsexual whose escapades have now become the stuff of Sally Potter's sly and sumptuous adaptation of Woolf's witty novel. It's a delicious look at England under the reign of Victor/Victoria.
A writer, director, lyricist and choreographer, Potter turns the pages into something akin to a cross-dressed operetta with music, ice dancing and even a bit of juggling. While Potter is not entirely faithful to the convolutions of Woolf's fable, the essentials of the plot remain: A young nobleman, Orlando (Tilda Swinton), becomes a young noblewoman over the course of 350 years.
"Same person. No difference at all. Just a different sex," observes Lady Orlando, who is taken aback when pronounced legally dead after her transformation. "You are a female. It amounts to the same thing," explains the queen's consul, who's come to strip her of her castle and lands. In the background, the heretofore phallic shrubbery has become a garden of teacup topiary. A bow to "Edward Scissorhands," perhaps, it's a rare meeting of feminism and whimsy.
But we are getting ahead of Orlando's story.
It all begins when the pretty youth becomes a favorite of the aging Queen Elizabeth I (Quentin Crisp), who still appreciates a well-turned calf when she sees one. In return for his services, the queen grants him a vast estate and commands him: "Do not fade, do not wither, do not grow old." After Elizabeth's death, he is smitten by a Russian diplomat's daughter, Sasha (Charlotte Valandrey), at a winter carnival during the Great Frost of 1603.
Heartsick when Sasha refuses his suit, Orlando accepts an ambassadorship to Constantinople, where he undergoes his sex change after seeing a man killed in battle. She returns to England to trade quips with 18th-century know-it-alls Swift, Pope and Addison. A garden maze leads to the 19th century, where she falls into the arms of a studly American (Billy Zane), whose child she bears in the 20th. Therein lies utmost happiness -- the same moral espoused with equal depth in Ron Howard's "Parenthood."
An astounding commentary on the nature of gender it's not. Many a Ms., in fact, might see its precepts as stale if not sexist in this day and age. That is, if they take it seriously, despite its winky asides and Swinton's jokey delivery. "Terrific play," Orlando assures us on passing an outdoor production of "Othello." As customary in Elizabethan theater, Desdemona is played by a transvestite. It can't compare, however, with Crisp's wonderfully creaky turn as the, ahem, virgin queen.
The drag show extends to the falsetto stylings of the resident castrati and the elaborate wigs, plumed hats and beribboned heels worn by the men in the 1700s. And like Ellen Barkin, a man who awakes a woman in 1991's "Switch," the Lady Orlando struggles with the fashion victimization of female attire. Barkin's precarious pumps seem almost reasonable next to Swinton's billowing Bo Peep skirt, which has enough room for an entire flock of sheep underneath.
A serene redhead who might have stepped from a Rembrandt, Swinton is elegantly comic, but also strangely cartoonish. She has a habit of looking directly into the camera that recalls Bugs Bunny, the Uncle Miltie of 'toons. A funny and forthright screen presence, she is the foil for the stately pace and the opulent sets -- the most ravishing since "Bram Stoker's Dracula." There is only one conclusion: Potter, the little smarty-pants, is pulling our cross-gartered gams. She's having us on with this spoof of the prissy masterpiece theatricality.
"Orlando" is rated PG-13 for nudity and sexual situations.
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