Now enshrined as an exuberant, genderfluid classic, Sally Potter’s Orlando was released in 1993 to widespread praise that often came inflected by delighted bewilderment. It now might have embedded itself deeper into the culture (its star Tilda Swinton recently guest-edited an Orlando themed issue of Aperture, and the film has inspired the Met Gala’s 2020 theme) but it has lost none of its novelty or allure. Adapted from Virginia Woolf’s time- and gender-hopping novel, the film meets its source’s eclecticism with a miraculous marriage of design, music, camerawork and directorial ingenuity.

In the New York Times, Vincent Canby articulates the hard-to-identify delight that characterises the wit and invention of Potter’s constantly shapeshifting film:

Throughout Ms. Potter's Orlando, as in Woolf’s, there are a piercing kind of common sense and a joy that, because they are so rare these days in any medium, create their own kind of cinematic suspense and delightedly surprised laughter. Orlando could well become a classic of a very special kind, not mainstream perhaps, but a model for independent film makers who follow their own irrational muses, sometimes to unmourned obscurity, occasionally to glory.

Many critics, like Caryn James for Newsweek, noted Potter’s omnivorous reach, incorporating the palimpsestic quality of history:

Potter’s kaleidoscopic style ... incorporates songs, dances, poems, extravagant colors, emotional heights. The visuals are still seductive: the frozen Thames crowded with 17th-century skaters. The film’s wit and layered sense of history seem richer than ever.

Meanwhile, in Slant, Matthew Connoly appreciated the subtleties of Potter’s craft behind the immediate spectacle:

Potter’s shrewdest moves are her simplest. At several moments throughout Orlando, her camera will linger on lengthy conversations ... In place of a shot/reverse shot strategy, she attentively pans back and forth between the [Orlando and Shelmerdine] as they discuss how their individual desires brush up against gendered societal norms ... It’s a subtle visual metaphor for how Potter asserts her directorial presence within Orlando without getting in the way of Woolf’s richness and humor. Overt without being fussy, she leans in, listens close, and invites us to savor the pageant of ideas and images she alternately channels and constructs.

Consensus can be found on Swinton’s magnetic performance as the eponymous hero(ine). Swinton was a key collaborator: Potter developed the film with her for five years before shooting began. In The Times, Kate Muir says of Swinton’s performance:

Tilda Swinton’s performance as Orlando in this adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s novel is luminous and thrilling, an omnisexual romp through 400 years of history.

While at the Washington Post, Rita Kempley writes:

Swinton is elegantly comic, but also strangely cartoonish. She has a habit of looking directly into the camera that recalls Bugs Bunny, the Uncle Miltie of ‘toons. A funny and forthright screen presence, she is the foil for the stately pace and the opulent sets.

For Roger Ebert, the multifarious whole of Orlando raised a series of intriguing questions about empathy through the film’s transgression of the conventional limits of consciousness, and these questions remain just as relevant today:

It is not about a story or a plot, but about a vision of human existence. What does it mean to be born as a woman, or a man? To be born at one time instead of another? To be born into wealth, or into poverty, or into the traditions of a particular nation? Most of us will never know. We are stuck with ourselves, and as long as we live, will always see through the same eyes and interpret with the same sensibility.


Orlando is available to stream as part of TANK’s season Beyond Varda. Subscribe for just £3 a month for access to 40+ films throughout the year.