Action of the movie spans 400 years, with title cards telling us when we are.
1600 – Death
Young Orlando is favored by Queen Elizabeth I (gay performer/activist Quentin Crisp – I must see his 70’s Hamlet), who orders him to never grow old.
1610 – Love
Orlando is smitten with a visiting Russian princess (Charlotte Valandrey). They ice skate together, O. pledges his undying love, and when she leaves the country he attempts a romantic rescue but gets his ass kicked.
1650 – Poetry
Orlando is obsessed with poetry, and decides to sponsor acclaimed poet Nick Greene (Heathcote Williams of Jarman’s The Tempest). O. tries his own hand at poetry, unsuccessfully.
1700 – Politics
Orlando goes to “the east” as an ambassador, hangs out with the Khan (Lothaire Bluteau of Jesus of Montreal), accidentally gets involved in a war. Filmed in Uzbekistan!
1750 – Society
Back home, Orlando wakes up one day as a woman. She puts on the most massive gown she can find and goes out to a small party held by Archduke Harry (John Wood of Richard III). She’d met Harry in 1700 (he’s barely aged – the movie does not treat its timeframe very literally) and he is very intrigued… offers to marry her, then curses her when she refuses. Also at the party: high-haired Kathryn Hunter (who played a plot contrivance in the last Harry Potter), Roger Hammond (Demy’s Pied Piper), Peter Eyre and Ned Sherrin.
1850 – Sex
Orlando runs through a hedge maze straight into 1850, where she meets and falls for Billy Zane. I know, right? Billy Zane!
No date in this segment – set in the present. Orlando motorcycles to her publisher’s office, where they tell her they won’t publish the book she’s been writing for 400 years without some changes. She doesn’t take this hard, goes to the park with her daughter (played by Tilda’s daughter). Daughter has a video camera, they see an angel flying over the trees, segue from that totally nuts image into the closing credits.
Must say I had high hopes and this movie smashed them all Godzilla-like. The movie is a mighty masterpiece, scoffing at my insufficiently-high hopes! It has as much to say about life and how to live it, fleeting relationships and the nature of time as The Benjamin Buttons, but it says them more elegantly (I know I’ve been hard on The Ben Buttons lately – I actually liked it a lot). Plus it must be the most beautiful super-feminist film I’ve seen… I’ll bet college kids love to write theses on it (a google search reveals this to be true).
Potter says the movie is “about the claiming of an essential self, not just in sexual terms. It’s about the immortal soul.”
Music cowritten by Potter, has Fred Frith on guitar, mostly good, peppered with some late-80’s-sounding beats. Same cinematographer who shot Potter’s Yes. Movie was nominated for a buncha awards, incl. oscars, but lost to The Piano, Age of Innocence and Schindler’s List. Won some stuff in Venice and Greece and I feel pretty good about that.