Picks and Pans Review: Orlando

updated 06/21/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/21/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Tilda Swinton, Billy Zane, Quentin Crisp

In clumsier hands this could have been Myra Breckinridge for the Masterpiece Theatre set. Instead, British director and screenwriter Sally Potter has made a beautiful, if decidedly wobbly, movie out of Virginia Woolfs novel about a 16th-century nobleman who evolves, across some 400 years, into a modern woman in her mid-30s. Swinton plays both male and female Orlando with cool humor.

We first meet Orlando as a ravishing young man who captures the fancy of England's lading Queen Elizabeth I (Quentin Crisp in Tudor drag—very arch, very forlorn, very touching). Orlando then falls in love with a Muscovite princess, who breaks his heart. To recuperate, he serves as a diplomat in Morocco, where the miraculous transformation takes place. ("Same person," says the now womanly Orlando, surveying her body without a trace of surprise, "different sex.") He, now she, returns to Restoration England an exquisite beauty moving gingerly beneath a tall pile of hair, then goes on to spend intensely romantic moments with an American adventurer (Zane) in the age of Victoria. Orlando finally finds success, in the here and the now, as a writer and single mother. When we leave her, she is crying with happiness.

Potters adaptation is a lightly floating fantasy about a feminine spirit who finally gets the body and the life she wants. This Orlando is part sexual karma, part sexual politics and part historical pageant. But that's only a scintilla of what Woolf is after in her novel, which manages to be about the life of a soul, the birth of an artist and the broad, majestic realm of English literature. The fact is, Orlando him-or herself isn't all that interesting.

Perhaps this is why, after a glorious beginning, the movie goes flat for long stretches. Orlando doesn't come fully to life again until a stunning shot of the 19th-century Lady Orlando running through a fog-bound field, her voluminous gown dragging behind in the wet grass. Woolf herself would have been thrilled: You can just imagine her in a darkened theater, so roiled by emotion she spills her popcorn. (R)

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