Gender-Bending `Orlando' On Way To Being Smash Hit

Movie review XXX "Orlando," with Tilda Swinton, Quentin Crisp, Billy Zane. Written and directed by Sally Potter, from Virginia Woolf's novel. Egyptian. "PG-13" - Parental guidance advised because of nudity, subject matter. American premiere engagement.

Reminiscent of the low-budget lushness of the early films of Peter Greenaway and Ken Russell, "Orlando" could turn out to be the art-house smash of the summer.

Adapted from Virginia Woolf's 1928 novel by British choreographer-turned-filmmaker Sally Potter ("The Gold Diggers," "The London Story"), it's an exotic, ethereal fantasy of sexual politics, dominated by a blithely witty gender-bender performance by Tilda Swinton.

The title character is an androgynous male English aristocrat, commanded by an age-obsessed Queen Elizabeth I never to grow old. He becomes both immortal and female over the centuries, loses the family estate in 18th century London because women have no property rights, listens to men spouting the same sexist rationales Orlando had used when male ("You're mine because I adore you"), and finally becomes a satisfied single mother in the more liberated 20th century.

This may sound like a feminist diatribe, but it's much airier than that. Potter and the perfectly cast Swinton keep the series of historical tableaux light and darting, while supplying more explicit reasons than Woolf did for Orlando's sex change.

In the movie, the moment of truth comes when Orlando is sent to war in central Asia and chooses not to kill or be killed. Suddenly Orlando is looking in the mirror at her newly female form: "Same person, no difference at all. Just a different sex."

The book ends in the year when it was published, but Potter carries it further. She told The New York Times that she sees it as essentially contemporary in meaning: "The idea of being able to transcend normal human life is the ultimate contradiction to the fear of death for nuclear-age babies and AIDS babies."

Made for about $4 million (plus quite a few rubles that ended up as seed money), "Orlando" shames Hollywood productions that cost 10 times more. Re-creating such historical events as the Great London Frost of 1603, imaginatively making use of locations in St. Petersburg and Uzbekhistan, it's a visual spellbinder. Yet cinematographer Aleksei Rodionov's effects are never strained, and Potter's lively, offhand use of elaborate costumes and furnishings distinguishes it from the formality of a Merchant-Ivory production.

The casting, which might have seemed merely gimmicky in several instances, couldn't be better. It was a stroke of genius, not just marquee savvy, to pick Quentin Crisp to play Queen Elizabeth I. Billy Zane is just right as a 19th century American with big plans. Crisp has a tendency to camp it up, and so can Zane (see his over-the-top work in "Posse"), but Potter keeps them under control here.

"Orlando" is a rather cool film, populated by characters who are so thinly developed that they're little more than walking ideas. It may be difficult to warm to, particularly if you don't know Woolf's writings or you're not familiar with the origins of the book, which is dedicated to Woolf's friend, Vita Sackville-West, who inspired it. Vita's son and biographer, Nigel Nicholson, called it "the longest and most charming love letter in literature."

But the movie has an elegance about it that's lacking in such literary adaptations as "Much Ado About Nothing" and "Bram Stoker's Dracula," which tend to pile on flashy effects to woo an audience supposedly receptive only to MTV techniques. It communicates the confidence of filmmakers who don't need to do that.