Cinematic adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s ‘Orlando’ by Sally Potter: A Review


Virginia Woolf’s Orlando was one of her most special novels because of its eccentric plot, story and narrative. It was regarded as the ‘The longest and most charming love letter in literature’ written by Woolf for her close friend and lover Vita Sackville-West. But besides its personal charm and eccentricity, the book has also been regarded in high esteem for the unusual themes and issues it covered with an unusual narrative. A character transcends centuries, countries and even gender in this book in the most peculiar fashion and meets different people throughout this journey gaining fascinating experiences. Along the years the “longest…love letter” has also come to be acknowledged for its potential to initiate conversations on issues of sexuality, gender, history, time, narratives, modernity and so much more.

64 years later Sally Potter, an English filmmaker adapted the novel into a film with Tilda Swinton playing the lead role. While filmic adaptations of literature are not unique, mostly realist or sci-fi narratives make it to the silver screen from books. To adapt this unusual narrative which was both realist and yet phantasmagorical was an interesting attempt which certainly yielded an interesting film to say the least. The film won many accolades and awards including “Audience prize for Best Film” at the Venice Film Festival. Translating transitions between centuries and genders could not have been easy. Following is an account of the techniques and processes that Potter used to achieve the same.

The movie with a different climax from the novel, more or less keeps the spirit of the original work alive. The most important aspects of the way the flow of the story through the ages has been depicted in the film have been the editing and the cinematography. Change in the centuries, which might be easy to read about on an abstract level in a novel otherwise, may become very difficult to depict on screen but an effective screenplay in the film allows one to fall in line with a visual representation of this progression.

Potter in her various interviews has given accounts of how was she able to pull off the seemingly impossible task of depicting three ages- the Elizabethan, the Victorian and the modern and what techniques did she use to build up the transitions between the ages. Sally relates that she derived the iconography of respective ages in terms of the colour palettes, the structure of the characters etc. from the paintings of the time. For the Elizabethan era she says she looked at the miniature works by Nicolas Hilliard, the famous court painter of Elizabeth I. The intentional use of shades of red, orange etc. and reduction to a bare minimum of shades of green and blue was a technique that she employed.

Elizabeth I (A portrait) by Nicholas Hilliard Source

Similarly, for the icy mis-en-scene of the film (she stated in the post screening Q&A session at the San Francisco Film Festival (SFF) that) she drew inspiration from the Dutch paintings with their use of the whites and the dark shades. The Victorian era and preceding that the romantic age has been depicted through the use of natural colours to bring in a sense of the tragic, romantic and melodramatic themes of the time.

There are two very important moments in the film which mark the brilliant use of the choreography and the editing. The first is when Orlando discovers that she is no longer a man. Being a very important theme of the film, the transcending of sexuality, this has been treated with equal significance by emulating in the scene, the famous painting by Botticelli- ‘The Birth of Venus’. There is a remarkable resemblance between the two images and has a lasting impression in the mind of the viewer, the significance of which is also not lost because both the images signify the birth of a new identity.

Birth of Venus by Botticelli.  Source

The second moment signifies the other important theme of the film which is transcending of time, i.e. when Lady Orlando exits from the eighteenth century into the nineteenth century. This is one transition the imagery of which is very precarious. Through the introduction of a labyrinth, absent in the original work, editing has been employed through the use of sharp and frequent cuts, rendering a transition in the ages through a change in the colour and complete persona of Orlando as he/she runs through the maze and transcends an entire century.

With regards to the interior monologues from the novel, Sally admits that they were quite detailed and explicit to be incorporated in the movie. It is through the subtle gaze of Tilda Swinton  into the camera every now and then as if in a direct connection with the audience it conveys the essence of these monologues.

The whole film is about ambiguity. Potter says that the film is about the essence of the novel which is the force of Zeitgeist. Orlando is constantly struggling against it, sometimes yielding to it and sometimes conquering it. But even so the film is also a narrative of a nation and simultaneously that of a human, coming to terms with their respective identities.

By being outside history, Orlando is able to live in different eras and see what each age holds for its men and women. Potter says that the film is dealing with many issues of ‘larger political value’, such as coming to the end of Russian and British empires, the story of England losing and finding itself and at the same time dealing with the ‘true’ universal question- the difference between men and women.

In an interview, when critiqued on her approach to the issue of emancipation of women as being deliverable only through men, Potter replied that it is precisely this idea that the film is set out to refute and added that the emancipation of human is only possible through being a human. She says that the difference between the sexes is an illusion and the reality is the commonness between them and although differences in the society must be respected, they must not be sought to create boundaries and walls between people. The essence of the film she suggests is to not to be determined by one’s past and moving on continuously. (SFF)

The film at many moments with its tongue in cheek humour makes great political comments on the civil, political and property rights of women. An instance of Orlando’s ability to make a strong feminist critique of Britain in its three eras.

First Official: One, you are legally dead and therefore cannot hold any property whatsoever.

Orlando: Ah. Fine.

First Official: Two, you are now a female. 

Second Official: Which amounts to much the same thing.’

Orlando is a thorough critique of power not only in its administrative sense but also in it philosophical sense which relates to the power of defining identities. Thus it is a text which is a powerful political critique at many levels.

Sally Potter in a Q&A session after receiving the first Satyajit Ray Lifetime achievement award from the San Francisco Film Festival, said she was drawn to this story of eternal youth and immortality “because of the twin plagues of AIDS and nuclear annihilation that we live under. After losing so many friends to AIDS and seeing the staggering loss of their voices, this film had to be made”. (SFF)

Orlando has been widely acclaimed as an extremely relevant gendered critique of society and politics. But at the same time its cinematic excellence has not passed unnoticed. Max Hoffman in his review of the film writes “Sally Potter has affirmed my hope that we need not always look to the past for enduring cinema. That films as great as the German silents of the 20’s, as great as the works of Orson Welles are still being created.” David N. Butterworth, comments “Orlando cleverly judges issues of identity and sexual ambiguity in an enchanting story that is totally preposterous yet, “because this is England, no one tends to notice””. Thus in terms of critical acclaim Orlando manages to fare well and Potter is able to successfully present a gendered historiography of England.

Unfortunately Virginia Woolf herself was not too keen on the medium of movies, especially their reliance on literature for inspirations. But more on that later.

One thought on “Cinematic adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s ‘Orlando’ by Sally Potter: A Review

  • April 15, 2023 at 4:40 am

    I’ve always loved this film and try to watch it every year on New Year’s Eve. I can’t explain its effect on me but it reaches in and plucks my heartstrings every time.


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