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Sally Potter's Orlando - An interesting and successful adaptation.,
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This review is from: Orlando [DVD]  (DVD)
I shan't talk about the story of Orlando in this review, as a story review more properly belongs to Virginia Woolf's book. For the rest of the review, I shall assume my reader's familiarity with Orlando's general plot. However, I shall say here that, despite the film's many merits, a prior reading of Orlando is close to essential for full enjoyment and appreciation of this film. Although in my opinion, completion of at least one reading of Orlando ought to be an essential requirement of life!
As you may have noticed, I approach the film adaptation of Orlando with pre-existing bias. I love the novel and I love its tale. I bought the film primarily out of interest in how such an unusual story might be adapted for film. I didn't, however, hold particularly high hopes. Sally Potter's Orlando was a delightful surprise, as it does an excellent job of bringing Orlando to screen. First, Potter ditched a considerable amount of Woolf's original material. Considering the novel's length and complexity, this is a fully justified decision. It would have been impractical to film the novel as it stands (especially with the small budget this production had). However, this is the primary reason I recommend reading the novel prior to watching the film. The novel's ephemeral, yet somehow stark, beauty is diluted somewhat in the film, but more importantly it becomes incredibly confusing for the 'virgin' viewer. I first watched the film with a friend who (despite having an English degree) hadn't read the book - she found it a very enjoyable film despite, although largely incomprehensible. In addition to taking material out, Potter invented a sequence for the end of the film which sees it finish in the modern day (or at least the 1990's, which were contemporary with the film's release) instead of ending where the novel did in the earlier part of the 20th Century.
To cope with the vast time period covered by the film (300 years, from 1600-1990), Potter utilises intertitles. Periodically, a word will flash up on the screen to describe the section we are moving into (eg. "POLITICS" when Orlando goes abroad as an ambassador). This is followed by a year flashing up, which helps the viewer keep track of the story's chronology. The system works very effectively by breaking up the film into discrete sections which are easy for the mind to grasp. In addition, each time period has a distinct colour scheme and visual presentation, as well as considerably differing costume.
Creatively, the film is similarly successful. The imagery Potter has created is consistently both beautiful and stunning throughout the film. The lavishly presented costumes and sets are perfectly tuned to the material being presented and come across as both authentic and attuned to the nuances of each scene. From Orlando's slashed silk doublet amidst the tapestries and gold tableware of his mansion in the sixteenth century, to her battered motorcycle jacket and the dust sheeting suffocating the mansion's twentieth century incarnation, every scene is perfectly pitched.
Much of this has to do with the excellent cast performances in the film, headed by the inimitable Tilda Swinton as Orlando. Swinton's performance is simply sublime and demands to be watched rather than described. Quentin Crisp appears as Queen Elizabeth I and does such a convincing job that I didn't realise Elizabeth I was played by a man until I began to watch the extra features.
Speaking of which, the features on this two-disc set are rather good. Sally Potter's feature on the making of the documentary was very informative and I was both intrigued and pleased by the inclusion of one of the film's press conferences on the second disc.
My recommendation is that anybody who has read and enjoyed the novel "Orlando: A Biography" ought to watch this film. If you are interested in the film, I really do stress my recommendation to read the novel first, but nonetheless recommend the film. Sally Potter has produced an intelligent and sensitive adaptation, which manages simultaneously to be very watchable and provide good entertainment value. This two-disc set, in addition, is well-presented with worthwhile extra features.