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Featured DVD Review: Orlando

August 16th, 2010

Orlando - Buy from Amazon

Orlando was first released in 1992, earned good reviews, and made $5 million at the box office. This is impressive, especially for such a weird movie. The film is an adaptation of a novel by Virginia Woolf. This book has been described as her most accessible, or among her most accessible books. It is also been described as semi-autobiographical. I find both those claims hard to believe.

The Movie

Tilda Swinton stars as Orlando, a young man, yes man, living late in the Elizabethan Age. (It is explained in the opening narration that is was the custom of the day for men to try and look as feminine as possible.) At the beginning of the film, a very elderly Queen Elizabeth I takes him as her lover and bequeaths to him a large tract of land and a castle, but under one condition, he must vow to never grow old and whither.

The rest of the movie is split into many sections, each taking place in a different time frame and each with Orlando dealing with a different aspect of life: Love, Poetry, Politics, Society, Sex, and Birth.

In 1610, after the death of his father, he meets Princess Alexandra Menchikova, or Sasha as her father calls her. (Played by Charlotte Valandrey.) She is a member of the entourage of the Russian embassy that was visiting England at the time. Orlando is smitten, much to the dismay of his fiancee. After his fiancee breaks off the engagement, he is free to marry Sasha, but when she rejects him, he falls into a deep sleep and cannot be woken. (The attempts to wake him range from snapping fingers at him, three men saying "good morning" in unison, and even having dogs sit upon him while what appears to be a castrato sings to him. It's a very bizarre scene.) After six days asleep, he awakes and swears off love. Or at least women.

We fast-forward to 1650 where Orlando has given up on love and instead takes up poetry. ... This ends about as well as his obsession with love.

It's 1700, he moves onto politics, takes a post in Constantinople, and arrives just in time for a war and to witness events he is simply unprepared for. He slips into another catatonic state, but this time when he wakes, he has girlie bits. She takes her sudden gender change in stride and returns to England.

At this point, you either take this change in stride, just as Orlando does, as the movie has already been a rather strange trip, or you throw up your hands and give up. Fortunately, Tilda Swinton is so good in this role that by this point in the film, one is more than willing to accept this. She compliments the film's dry wit nearly perfectly, a dry wit that is often displayed in her asides to the camera. The transitions between time periods are rather blunt with just a date (followed by a word) shown on screen. However, since this is not a conventional story, having unconventional way of telling it adds to the overall experience.

Additionally, for a film that reportedly cost between $4 million and $5 million to make, it looks amazing. Costume dramas are not exactly cheap to make, but the film's limited budget did not hurt in this department. In fact, the film earned two Oscar nominations, one for costumes and the other for production design. (I'm a little surprised Tilda Swinton wasn't singled out more for her performance.)

On the other hand, this is clearly a film with limited appeal and it was never going to be a hit at the multiplexes. It asks a lot of the audience when it comes to suspension of disbelief. And because the film takes place over 400 years, the only character that is involved from the beginning till the end is Orlando. This does make the movie very episodic in nature without a conventional plot to sustain the whole film.

That said, the positives outweigh the negatives by a large, large margin.

The Extras

Extras begin with something called Select Scene Commentary. This is actually the director, Sally Potter, talking about what she was trying to do with the movie, and using certain scenes as examples. We see her talking about the movie more than we see clips of the movie, so calling it a commentary is not accurate. Orlando Goes To Russia is a 33-minute featurette on the filming in Russia. Christopher Sheppard, the producer, created this video diary chronicling the process. It is rather dry, but quite in-depth. Orlando in Uzbekistan is even longer at 52 minutes and looks at the filming in Uzbekistan. Jimmy was an Angel is an 8-minute look at the filming of the final scene in the film, which has Jimmy Somerville playing an angel. Next up is the press conference after the film's world premiere at the Venice Film Festival. And the extras end with a 13-minute interview with Sally Potter, which also took place at the Venice Film Festival.

The total running time is well over 2 hours, and while I would have liked a feature-length audio commentary track with Sally Potter and Tilda Swinton, what we get is quite in-depth.

The Verdict

Orlando should appeal to art house aficionados, while it might alienate some of the mass audiences. The Special Edition DVD has enough extras to earn the Special Edition label and it is worth picking up for fans of the movie and worth checking out for those who have not yet seen it.

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