Sally Potter’s adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s classic novel is the story of a journey through time. Crossing vast tracts of history, Orlando (Tilda Swinton) travels as a young nobleman from the court of Elizabeth I, across the glittering ice of the frozen Thames in 1610, to the deserts of central Asia. There, in the midst of war, he changes sex. As a woman, Orlando returns to the formal salons of 18th-century London, where she faces a choice: either to marry or to lose everything. In the Victorian age, a time of wildness and repression, she sacrifices both love and inheritance. Finally she emerges into the present as an ordinary individual who in losing everything has gained herself.
Potter’s second feature, this sweeping epic challenges expectations of gender throughout the history of modern Western culture, while exemplifying the director’s adeptness at orchestrating setting, gesture, costume, and tableau to produce images which resonate with multi-layered significance and intelligence. This is bolstered by a superb cast, namely a luminous Swinton, an affable Billy Zane, and, in a memorable performance as Elizabeth I, the legendary Quentin Crisp. Shot partly on location in Russia, with not only the magnificent landscape but thousands of extras at her command, Orlando is celebrated as Potter’s most sumptuous and satisfying film.