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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Sally Potter and the Prisoner of Uzbekistan
by Donald Levit

Before tall Australian Cate Blanchett’s fey Dylan, there was tall Scottish Tilda Swinton’s serene Lord Orlando and Lady Orlando, “We are joined,/We are one,/With a human form.” Not about androgyny but celebratory of youth -- “one condition, do not wither, fade, do not grow old” -- openness to experience, fulfillment, and man in and out of time. Sixteen days prior to commercial re-release, re-mastered hi-def Orlando is opening night for the Museum of Modern Art’s two-week celebration of Sally Potter. The retrospective includes all the British director’s full-lengths and shorts plus selected experimental works, within a longer, larger consideration of women in film.

For Blanchett “androgyny can be a useful thing,” but, following this Orlando digital U.S. première, Swinton affirmed that the difficulty for her was to fit into different situations while yet doing nothing; that is, not to change as an Orlando dropped into complications in what was not meant as historical costume drama done on a shoestring.

To open the screening, Potter was introduced and in turn brought in her star, indeed “shoulder to waist” towering over her. Afterwards, both laughed about the initial skepticism that greeted the idea of a screen adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s 1928 Orlando, A Biography. Based on married Woolf’s married lover Victoria “Vita” Sackville-West, the fantasy à clef may be, or have been, as avidly gobbled up by young U.K. girls as the two said, but the authoress’ works are hardly teen fodder over here.

Sumptuous wardrobes and setting are simulated as the hero(ine) goes from Good Queen Bess’ (Quentin Crisp) reign to post-Great War, with neither apologies, gizmos, nor explanations beyond printed dates and one-word headings. Not Time’s fool or a Time Traveler’s Wife/husband, she/he attains the time- and property-lessness advocated by Victorian era soulful American Shelmerdine (Billy Zane), who leaves her soupy starry-eyed ending centuries of virginity and at least spiritually fathers her daughter (Swinton’s real-life Jessica) of seventy years later. Full circle in the ‘Twenties, under the same Elizabethan tree she-once-he observes the child and a hokey winged singer, the last of a line of castratos or falsettos (music co-composed, and in cases sung, by Potter), the harmonious Platonic two-in-one.

Take it at face value that the old, decaying Virgin Queen gestures the young noble into her chaste royal lap and confers or commands eternal physical youth. The rosy-cheeked would-be poet(ess) floats through time and place, serious and comic, observing, learning, speaking deadpan into the camera.

A woman may prove treacherous, as when Muscovite Princess Alexandra “Sasha” Menchakov (Charlotte Valandrey, as a character modeled on a Sackville-West ex-lover) skates the Great Frost straight to her ship and the embrace of a compatriot sailor (Aleksandr Medvedev). But the Lord Orlando has dumped his betrothed, too, and in these travels through two dimensions it most often is the men who disappoint, such as poet Nick Greene (Heathcote Williams), whose belly rides roughshod over his art; or the Archduke Harry (John Wood), who also lives for ages and reveals himself your garden-variety male egoist; Augustan literati Swift, Pope, Addison (Roger Hammond, Peter Eyre, Ned Sherrin) and company are hilariously effete bored male chauvinists whose muse is feminine but who “have no respect for women, your wives included.”

Witnessing distressing combat death during his “Oriental” (then the Near and Middle East and Africa) career, Her Majesty Queen Anne’s ambassador sleeps for days to awaken the “Same person, no difference at all,” adding to the camera, “Just different sex.”

No big deal, just a female body reflected back by Lady Orlando’s large oval mirror. Since men write nations’ laws, her legal status and rights change, although more centuries pass before they can officially strip the lady of inherited lands and home, another no big deal.

With color warmer and sound enhanced in this new release print, “here we are, still working on Orlando, will it ever end?” Wry humor, live-action fantasy, and a literary leaning, will make for tough sledding with today’s teen/adult ticket-buyers and downloaders. But perhaps some of the new generation, post-feminist, will, as Woolf put it, use “instincts [and] reason, come to your own conclusions.” Shakespeare in Love, after all, won Oscars and did good business to boot. 

(Released by Sony Pictures Classics; not rated by MPAA.)

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