Hurled back into theaters by the awe-inspiring powers of its star, Tilda Swinton, Sally Potter’s 1992 costume porn has the cojones to attempt adapting the unadaptable. All filmmakers should be afraid of Virginia Woolf: Even more than other great authors, her infectious prose, which carries the reader through wordplay and sudden profundities, is entirely literary, and shares almost nothing with cinema. Potter wisely doesn’t even try to mimic Woolf’s style, sticking to a skeleton of the plot: swoony Elizabethan nobleman Orlando (Swinton, at the time on loan from Derek Jarman) decides to spend a couple hundred years not aging past 30. He bides his copious time being jilted by a Russian hottie (Charlotte Valendrey), attempting poetry and encouraging the semi-tolerance of Turks in Constantinople. At the hour mark, he wakes up with a vagina.
Credit where credit is due: Potter more or less successfully converted a crazy, overflowing tome into something simple and attractive. Unlike the ill-advised attempts to adapt Ulysses or Dune, Orlando works as a movie. In one sense, you can see how Woolf would approve of cinema, even yearn for its simplicity. “Nature and letters share a natural antipathy; bring them together and they tear themselves to pieces,” Woolf writes in the 1928 source material. Nature and movies, however, get along swimmingly; all Potter has to do is point the camera, adjust the F-stop properly and shoot the things Woolf spends sentences trying to convey. Potter even has the perfect lead, as Orlando and David Bowie were the roles Swinton was put on earth to play. (Ditto Quentin Crisp as Queen Elizabeth.)
Yet Orlando is still preferable as a story told by Woolf’s words. Potter’s style is in some ways antithetical to the source: Where Woolf is breezy and all about rapid-fire thinking, Potter is heavy, plodding and light on thought to the point of not being about much of anything. (The nonending, which brings us into the 1990s, is particularly vacuous.) It does, however, retain the book’s sly inquiry into gender and sexual politics, slipping queer cinema past the bluehairs that once made it an art-house hit. In the final stretch, we’re basically watching as a character we’ve spent most of the film thinking of as a dude makes it with Billy Zane. Never mind that he/she’s played by a woman, whom we’ve earlier seen macking on and making out with other chicks. And Potter’s Orlando has this, too: It’s one of the few classic-lit adaptations not entirely subservient to the book. It’s its own thing.