Orlando's sex doesn't seem to matter at all. This is a novel idea, given the typical need to promote the division between men and women. It's difficult to say why this separation is so important within our culture, but there is and always has been an inherent fear in blurring of the sexes. Virginia Woolf's novel and Sally Potter's film, Orlando, address the idea of one person living as one sex and then becoming another, all the while never aging. First, as a man, Orlando becomes fed up with the behavior of his fellow men, and then, after miraculously becoming a female, she tires of the restraints placed on women. Orlando lands in modern day, still the same age, and fully embraces the idea of androgyny (shown externally through hair and dress), becoming both mother and father to her daughter.
I believe this movie worked for one reason only, Tilda Swinton. Swinton, who embodies in every way the androgynous female, is the only person who could play this character. As a male, she retains her feminine facial features, which turn out to be beneficial, given the overwhelming femininity of men during the 1650's. But her voice is powerful, and her movements are masculine. As a man, he convincingly falls in "love" with a Russian girl, and throws tantrums like a spoiled boy after his poetry is criticized. Then, after 6 years of a deep sleep, the male side of her disappears, and she is left entirely female. Immediately we see her jumping into corsets and hoop skirts with ease, as though she'd done it every day of her life. It seems perfectly natural that this should happen to her, that she would wake up one morning as the same person, only a different sex. Orlando is Orlando, no matter who she/he is attracted to or what she/he wears. Isn't this how it should be? A person is just a person, no matter their form. When Swinton looks straight into camera at you, it's clear that despite the passing of the years, Orlando is unchanged.
You may notice that Billy Zane graces the DVD cover with Swinton, but don't be fooled. He's only in the film for around 10 minutes, but they are a GOOD 10 minutes. Some of the best/most ridiculous dialogue is between the two of them. And he has hair in this movie! A lot of it (actually it's kind of gross, I prefer him bald). Other people weave in and out of the story, but are purely peripheral and don't make much of a lasting impression, with the exception of Quentin Crisp as Queen Elizabeth I.
Technically, the film exceeds as well. Given the massive number of time period changes, costumes could have become difficult to master, but each outfit is detailed, incredible and memorable. The scene transitions are flawless. The film is unique, but has a feeling in common with films like Marie Antoinette, or Lost in Translation, another Sophia flick. There isn't much dialogue, but when characters do speak, it's worth listening to. Just like Sophia, Director Sally Potter has a way of making the people even more beautiful through beautiful surroundings. Potter took a very difficult story to tell, and made it look effortless. The film doesn't feel overworked, or like it's trying too hard to be something else. It just is what it is, like Orlando.
Short and Sweet
Tilda Swinton makes you believe that Orlando could be real. The film convinces you that there is male and female dominance within every person, it just chooses to surface at different times. Beautifully shot, well written and costumed, amazingly acted, unique film. But they don't produce the DVD anymore, so again, Netflix is the way to go.
"I can find only three words to describe the female sex. None of which are worth expressing."
"Will you marry me?"
"Ma'am... I would gladly, but I fear my ankle is twisted."