Long out of theaters, writer-director Sally Potter’s visually lush, if highly uneven, adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s gender-bending “biography”—supposedly a loose portrait of Woolf’s contemporary Vita Sackville-West—returns in a new digital restoration. Orlando (Swinton) is a 17th-century English nobleman who makes a promise to a frail Queen Elizabeth (dandy extraordinaire Crisp) to never grow old. The reward is property and privilege, but as the centuries change, so do the rules of law and conduct. When “he” becomes “she” after a Middle Eastern sojourn, Orlando is suddenly placed in the subservient position that (s)he once haughtily discounted—though this ultimately turns out to be a saving grace.
Swinton’s androgynous affect has rarely been better exploited: It’s a kick to see her transition among Orlando’s numerous identities, whether wooing a Russian princess or submitting to the charms of the horseback-riding Shelmerdine (Zane, coming on like a locks-flowing Fabio of the moors). Her commitment deepens Potter’s feminist-chic take on the material, which, aside from several of her lead performer’s striking asides to the camera, has not dated well. All-cap title cards (“POETRY,” “SEX”) break up the action into thesis-sized chunks, and the have-it-both-ways approach to eroticism (analytical and smutty, yet always half-baked) is particularly off-putting. But go for Swinton, who showed even in her early roles that she could raise the bar.—Keith Uhlich
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