Owen Gleiberman
July 16, 1993 AT 04:00 AM EDT


Current Status
In Season
Tilda Swinton, Billy Zane, Quentin Crisp
Sally Potter
Sally Potter

We gave it an C

It’s almost beside the point to complain that Sally Potter’s Orlando, which is based on Virginia Woolf’s 1928 comic fantasia about an Elizabethan nobleman who travels through the centuries (and changes sex in the process), fails to evoke the empyrean delicacy of Woolf’s prose. ”Orlando” isn’t trying to be a faithful adaptation of Woolf. (If it were, the actress in the title role, Tilda Swinton, wouldn’t keep flashing her cat-ate-the-canary deadpan directly into the camera.) Instead, the movie deconstructs Woolf in a smug, didactic way, using her whimsical fantasy as the vehicle for a belabored satirical assault upon ”the patriarchy.”

The movie presents Orlando’s time-tripping odyssey as a series of ornate but flimsy Brechtian sketches, which are meant to illustrate the outmoded sexual roles of different centuries. Orlando begins his journey as a man, because — the implication is — there were no real parts for women to play in 16th- century English society. His evolution into a woman is meant to convey the dawning of contemporary female consciousness. Swinton, her eerie-pale skin set off by various items of high-collared finery, is less an actress here than a stunning found object: She looks so much like a painting of English nobility come to life that she helps root the film in a mythical historical past. Yet a face does not a movie make. As a fantasy, ”Orlando” has been spun out of a rather glib idea: that the mere assertion of Androgyny As Destiny is automatically a brave, emotionally triumphant stance for our time. The truth is, when androgyny is shrouded in this much deadening ”art,” it becomes little more than a haughty exercise in academic chic.

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