Heroines of Cinema: Tilda Swinton and Sally Potter's Orlando

by Matthew Hammett Knott
September 27, 2012 3:01 PM
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Tilda Swinton as Orlando
Tilda Swinton as Orlando

Arguably it is stretching the bounds of this column to claim Orlando, the eponymous protagonist of Sally Potter’s 1992 film, as a Heroine of Cinema. After all, the character not only begins life, but spends several hundred years as a biological man. However, the previous sentence may alert you to the fact that Orlando is no ordinary character, and gender non-conformity notwithstanding, there is no doubting his / her status as one of modern cinema’s most unique and compelling feminist creations.

What else would you expect from the combined invention of Virginia Woolf, Sally Potter and Tilda Swinton? The three women form a formidable, century-spanning triumvirate - the iconic author, the vigorously unique auteur and the acclaimed, rule-bending actress. Sally Potter’s film is an adaptation of Woolf’s 1928 novel about the elusive Orlando, who lives eternally and switches between genders at will. Tilda Swinton is an actress described as androgynous with predictable frequency, but there is nothing very masculine about her appearance, and she does not much resemble a man for the part of the film in which Orlando is male. However, this serves as a perfect demonstration of Woolf’s apparent thesis that men do not so much act as men but play male roles - that is to say, perform according to the expectations of society and not biology.

Sally Potter has spoken of how, in adapting Woolf’s book, she felt that the cinematic form required more pragmatic reasons for the changes that occur to Orlando without explanation in the novel. Thus his gender changes only once, after he refuses to conform to what is expected of him as a man - namely to kill at war. Up to this point, Swinton’s clear female status has provided some satirical bite as the male Orlando bemoans the treachery of women, or proclaims “A man must follow his heart”. In league with the audience - Swinton's character addresses us directly - Orlando is well aware of the flimsiness of social constructs and stereotypes of gender.

The is a snippet from Heroines of Cinema -- a new weekly column on Indiewire by The Lost Boys contributor Matthew Knott. Read the entire article here.

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