Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Sally Potter's ORLANDO: primed for discovery by a new generation

It isn’t as though ORLANDO -- the 1992 film that helped put both writer/
director Sally Potter* and her star Tilda Swinton on the cultural map – isn’t already a known quantity in the minds of most of the older set. We remember the film and how odd (and enjoyable) it seemed. Now, here it is again, suddenly re-released by Sony Pictures Classics, and guess what? It seems even better – richer, stronger, and (most surprising of all) more “modern” today than TrustMovies, at least, recalls its being back then. Based upon a book by Virginia Woolf that tracks 400 years of British history through the eyes of one man/woman who manages to live, without aging, through the entire four centuries, the movie is neither “supernatural” nor “vampirish” (Damn! There goes the Twilight crowd) but rather conceptual and philosophic, handled in a manner mostly playful and charming.

Potter’s film (the director is shown at left) is full of ideas about history and class, men and women, sex and identity, art and commerce – more often suggested than hammered home, simply by a telling glance at the camera from Ms Swinton. Combining extravagant visuals (lovelier than I remember), and a form and shape that entice, the movie has relatively little dialog. Divided into sections that read “death,” “love,” “poetry” and the like, it tells the story of Orlando and how he/she manages to live, learn and grow – if not age.

Among the treats on view is Swinton at her dewiest and fresh – and already unforgettable. This was and is a performance for which any good actress would kill/die for the chance to give – yet I don’t recall any major awards bestowed on Swinton for her work. It’s odd, but in the nearly 20 years that have passed since Orlando’s creation, it had seemed to me that Swinton herself had barely aged. But seeing her in this film once again, and on the big screen, it is clear that she has – but at her own slow pace and in her
own unique manner.

The movie lets us see Billy Zane, too, in his gorgeous prime (above, right). What a pair of lovers these two make! Swinton has gone on to sculpt an amazing career, I think, while Zane now appears mostly in B movies. Orlando takes us back to a moment when both had the world at their feet, stretching out in front of them with possibility and wonder. Well, talent, judgment, luck and decisions (made by themselves and others)  have combined to work their magic and/or take their toll. Also on view here are Quentin Crisp (wonderfully cast as Queen Elizabeth I), John Wood (below, left), Lothaire Bluteau, Heathcote Williams, Dudley Sutton, Simon Russell Beale and even Toby Jones in a tiny role.

If you‘ve never seen Orlando, now’s the time, though I wish the print we saw at the screening were a better one: sharper rather than fuzzy at odd times. But that’s a minor annoyance. The movie seems fresher now than before: smart, meaningful and even, finally, oddly moving. It opens Friday, July 23, in New York City at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and in Los Angeles at the NuArt.  SPC promises, as well, that it will be appearing at a theater near you. Check the film's web site for updates regarding where/when.

* You can find my interview with Sally Potter, upon the release of her latest film, Ragehere.

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