Orlando (1992) is based on Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel Orlando: A Biography. Directed by Sally Potter and starring Tilda Swinton as Orlando, the story floats dreamily across 300 years of Orlando’s life, first as a man, and then as a woman. Orlando never appears to age, owing to a magical slumber that happens every century or so, when he (then she) awakes refreshed in a new era. The film is broken up into segments with the years given to establish Orlando’s place in history at any given moment. This timeline is one of the reasons that this film has long been a costumer favorite, as the costumes, designed by Sandy Powell, range from the end of the Elizabethan age through to the modern era (well, the early 1990s at any rate). It is chalk full of eye-candy at every turn, but when I set out to write this post I realized that I would need to break it up into separate posts dealing with each of the eras, lest I overwhelm myself (and everyone else with me).
The character of Orlando begins life as a young man of roughly 20, give or take a few years, living in the year 1600. Orlando fancies himself a poet, though not exactly an exemplar of one, but prone to exquisite melancholy, worthy of at least Sir Philip Sidney.
The arrival of the aging Queen Elizabeth I (beautifully portrayed by Quentin Crisp; a wink and a nod to the fact that male Orlando is being played by a woman) to Orlando’s parents’ sprawling manor pulls him into the Queen’s circle of admirers rather quickly, and it is clear that his parents intend to capitalize on their son’s beauty and charm by placing him in Elizabeth’s path.
At the fête given to honor the Queen’s visit, Orlando naively performs a composition that compares her to a dying rose, because that’s what poets do, y’know. Death and beauty and all that. Elizabeth stops him mid-performance to gently chastise his choice of imagery, but she seems not too put off by the clumsy attempt at flattery and quickly adopts Orlando as her favorite, giving him an income and property for himself and his future heirs, upon the condition that he does not grow old.
Orlando is then called to the Queen’s bedchamber to attend up on her, but before he arrives, we are treated to the scene where Queen is undressed, revealing that she is wearing a pair of bodies based on those worn by Pfaltzgrafin Dorothea Sabine von Neuberg. Major props, since this was 1992 and Patterns of Fashion was not widely known.
A few years later, the Queen has died, as has Orlando’s father. Orlando is now the master of a vast and very wealthy estate. A young noblewoman, Lady Euphrosyne, has set her designs on him as a husband, and initially this seems like the right idea, so Orlando sort of goes along with it.
By this time, James I has been installed on the throne. The King appears to have hung on to Orlando, as he is with James’ court when they receive the ambassadorial envoy from Russia. Also, James is a nitwit.
Here’s a portrait of King James I & VI for reference:
Orlando has, by this point, more or less decided to marry Lady Euphrosyne, in a rather lukewarm attempt at settling down to start a family. However, he is captivated by the free-spirited daughter of the Russian ambassador, Princess Sasha, and ditches Euphrosyne publicly to pursue the exotic young woman.
Sasha enjoys Orlando’s attentions but her attachment to him is superficial, for she knows that she will return to Russia and has no intention of staying in England.
This period of Orlando’s life ends with his heart broken, sending him into his first period of torpor, where he wakes up about 50 years later in 1650 during the Interregnum.
So, how do the costumes hold up after nearly 25 years? In my opinion, pretty well. This was a period in historical cinema where costumes were not necessarily going for strict historical accuracy, but the flavor of the era was typically closely observed. So, upon watching Orlando for the first time in 20 years, the inaccuracies were there (wire-ribbon ruffs, metal grommets, shiny pleather trim), but the overall effect of the costumes was so well done, it’s hard to pick nits over the trivia. The one thing that Powell does that truly is impressive is that she makes no attempt to modernize the really wacky elements of early 17th-century clothing, preserving the peascod doublets and tiny trunk hose in all of their bizarre glory. I haven’t seen a film set in this period that hasn’t run screaming from the actual fashion of the era, which is why it has a special place in my heart.
That’s it for now; stay tuned for the next installment!
Do you think Orlando has aged well?