Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

UK movie (1992). Adventure Pictures (Orlando)/Lenfilm/Mikado/Rio/Sigma/British Screen. Pr Christopher Sheppard. Dir Sally Potter. Spfx Yuri Borovkov, Paul Corbould, Effects Associates, Viktor Okovitev. Screenplay Potter. Based on Orlando: A Biography (1928) by Virginia Woolf. Starring Quentin Crisp (Elizabeth I), Jimmy Somerville (Singer/Angel), Tilda Swinton (Orlando), Charlotte Valandrey (Sasha), John Wood (Archduke Harry), Billy Zane (Shelmerdine). 93 mins. Colour.

1600, and the aged Elizabeth I adopts the Lord Orlando as a favourite, granting him a great estate in perpetuity on condition he does not grow old. Within a few years the Queen and Orlando's father are dead, and Orlando grimly affianced. In 1610, under James VI & I, a Muscovite Embassy is in London, and Orlando flouts convention by falling in love with the Ambassador's daughter, Sasha, but she spurns him. Cursing the perfidy of women, he embraces misogyny; then falls into a long sleep, presumably of revival, for already his agelessness is obvious. 1650 sees him as a poetry groupie, wishing for talent himself. In 1700 he is Ambassador to a Middle Eastern desert nation, pressed into service by the local Khan to help put down a rebellion. Appalled by the carnage, Orlando falls into another long sleep, this time wakening as a woman. Joining a refugee caravan she at last makes her way home, where she is received dubiously. In 1750 she finds herself the butt of that same misogyny she purveyed when male. Also, the law is moving to repossess her house, for as a woman she has no entitlement. Fleeing the offer of a marriage of convenience she runs through both the great house's Labyrinth and the decades to find herself in 1850. There she abruptly encounters and as abruptly beds Shelmerdine, an adventurer and latter-day Tom Paine. As he departs (in a lush, Georgette Heyer bathos), she closes her eyes, opening them again to discover herself in WWI, heavily pregnant, stumbling through no-man's-land. She scrambles away to reach the later 20th century, where she tries to sell her autobiography and returns with her small daughter to the house, which is now – ornamental garden plants and all – under dustwraps. Moments later she is in the 1990s, where her daughter (still a child) videos her and the Angel who has come to sing to her that she is the union of male and female. "When she let go of the past," we are told, "she found her life was beginning."

O is both a subtle and surreal Time Fantasy – visually and musically exquisite – and a continuing debate about the insubstantiality of physical form when set alongside the uniqueness of the self: "Same person," murmurs the Temporal Adventuress Orlando on wakening to find herself a woman; "No difference at all – just a different sex." This lack of any effect (beyond the superficial) in consequence of the sex-change subverts all Identity-Exchange tales, which assume the opposite. Sexual ambiguity pervades throughout: young Sasha, with whom the effeminate-seeming Lord Orlando falls in love, is a boyish woman; Elizabeth I is played by a man; all of the set-piece music is sung by males but in falsetto/countertenor; Shelmerdine and Orlando discuss how exchanging sexes would not change the roles they would wish to play in life, and it is she who both proposes marriage to him and seduces him, thereby playing what was certainly in 1850 the male role. The temporal surrealism is maintained through filmic techniques, with curious and not always logical cuts/fades between scenes, and with occasional anachronistic (but never incongruous-seeming) asides from Orlando to the camera. The whole is held together by an electric and luminously intelligent performance from Swinton, who is rarely off centre-screen. [JG]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.