Orlando: A Biography

by Virginia Woolf
A movie by Sally Potter

Review by Alan Nicoll

The Book

I listened to a book-on-tape version of Virginia Woolf's Orlando: A Biography about a year ago, and just this month (7/05) finished reading the book. The idea, briefly, is that a young man we first meet in Elizabethan England lives for 400 years, along the way becoming female. This clever fantasy provides a vehicle for contemplating the changing roles of the sexes over this span.

Quentin Crisp and Tilda Swinton

I was very impressed and indeed felt as though my conception of good fiction had been liberated from some excessively restricting ideas of how stories should be told. The style is almost the star of this book, and the illogic of the plot detracts not a whit from the enjoyment of the experience.

Style in fiction has been a problem for me. In my own writing I've aimed at maximum "transparency," the effect in the reader that they are "seeing" the events depicted, that the words "disappear." I've read enough John Updike to decide that I didn't like this selfconscious, "look at me" kind of style, yet here is Woolf with a style that also hangs like a curtain between the reader and the story. Woolf's style is charming where Updike's (at least in Rabbit, Run) to me is labored and annoying.

I am less happy with the end of the novel, that is, the last chapter or two. Here Woolf virtually stops telling a story and goes completely, ramblingly self-indulgent. While this is troubling and annoying, the book as a whole is worthwhile and excellent.

The Movie

Orlando (1992) This is a unique movie adapted from the Virginia Woolf novel of 1928 or thereabouts. Tilda Swinton plays the eponymous role engagingly and endearingly, a notably charming if not histrionic performance. I loved this movie when it came out, and having lately been very enthusiastic about the novel, I wanted to see it again. This time I was less excited because I thought the changes from the novel were often gratuitous, though there weren't that many, really--it's a good realization of the novel. Most annoying of the changes are the great and foolish ones made to the character of and scenes with Shelmerdine (played by a dashing and toothsome Billy Zane, whom you may remember from Titanic). Quentin Crisp plays a memorable Queen Elizabeth. There are powerful moments, as when Orlando falls prone on the grass saying, "Nature, nature, I am yours" (which almost happens in the novel). Overall it's colorful, whimsical, and very entertaining, a movie I would be glad to see again. Directed by Sally Potter, who also did the screenplay, some of the music, and so on. Rated 6.7/10 at IMDB, Ebert gives it 3.5 stars. I'll be generous and agree with Ebert, based largely on Swinton's appeal and performance and the strength of Woolf's ideas. Viewed 3/20/05.

Buy the DVD, read the book:


Self-described Shrine to Orlando is worth a look.
My email address is: alan_nicoll@yahoo.com

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