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‘Orlando’ (PG-13)

By Joe Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
June 25, 1993

"Orlando" is based on an obscure 1928 English novel, but it's not another one of those terribly tasteful Laura Ashley Classics the Merchant-Ivory folks are always putting out. A spirited summer surprise, the triumph of independent filmmaker Sally Potter, "Orlando" is lovely to look at but lively, too.

Virginia Woolf's novel tells the amazing journey of the beautiful English nobleman Orlando, chosen as the Queen's favorite and granted favors and land, on one condition: "Do not fade, do not wither, do not grow old."

So he doesn't.

"Orlando" is an epic suffused with metaphysical musing and sexual politics, as Orlando, born into this privileged role, not only lives some 400 years -- from 1600 to the present -- without aging, he also changes sex. These inexplicables are left marvelously unexplained, and as time flies and Orlando experiences love, sex, betrayal, poetry, politics, birth and death from both sides of the gender coin in several eras, the film becomes an allegory of the sexless, timeless mind, of spirits trapped within the social constructs called masculinity and femininity.

Potter adapted and directed the script from Virginia Woolf's fantasia (which has been interpreted as Woolf's love letter to the androgynous, aristocratic novelist Vita Sackville-West), and co-composed the music. There are superficial similarities to Derek Jarman's recent "Edward II" -- they share a star (Tilda Swinton), a flair for opulent spectacle on a budget, sexuality as subject matter and appearances by gender-blender rock stars, in this case choirboy soprano and gay activist Jimmy Somerville.

"Orlando" would be unimaginable without Swinton in the title role. Her radiant, androgynous beauty makes every scene look like an Old Master portrait, and her charismatic character is touched with grace, gravity and a nimble humor. Now and then Orlando turns from the tableau to make an aside to the camera. When he awakens one day in the 17th century as a she, Orlando matter-of-factly tells us "Same person, no difference at all. Just a different sex."

Potter made a witty coup in casting Quentin Crisp in the role he was born to play -- the Queen. As a wizened Elizabeth I, the virgin queen, Crisp is tender and wise and delightfully carnal despite advanced age.

The film's producer calls "Orlando" a "$20 million film made for $4 million," and Potter conjures near-miraculous visions (watch for the ever-changing topiaries on Orlando's estate), filming in England and Russia. Particularly stunning are the scenes of the winter court during London's Great Frost of 1603, including a ravishing scene of a torchlit banquet held under a canopy on a frozen river with ice-skating waiters that will have Martha Stewart tearing her hair out.

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