I'll tell you who isn't afraid of Virginia Woolf. Sally Potter isn't. She's taken Woolf's strange novella "Orlando" and turned it into a shimmering extravaganza, an exploration of what it means to ** be male and female and British -- at the same time! -- over a span of 400 years.
The delirious "Orlando" opens today at the Charles and follows its hero/heroine through four centuries of peculiarity with a great deal of wit and verve. It has more energy in its delicate pinky than does the entire torpid, $30-million mass of "Rising Sun."
You begin to suspect that strange energies have been released when the aging Queen Elizabeth, bejeweled, begowned and bewhiskered, picks delicate Orlando as her favorite young lord. Except that the Queen is portrayed by a true queen: Quentin Crisp, famous as the Naked Civil Servant, possibly the world's first and most famous openly homosexual celebrity and a fabulous movie icon, knowing and regal and serene.
"Don't grow old," she commands Orlando, and the contrast between her ruined face and his pristine one seems almost to vouchsafe the order.
But to get to a still further dislocation, it turns out that we don't have one man playing a woman, we have two.
Orlando, the young courtier, is impersonated by British actress Tilda Swinton. And the journey she's about to begin will defy belief.
As if in obedience to his queen, Orlando simply ceases to grow old. It is a measure of the fey genius of the piece that no particular explanation is ever offered and no one seems to think it odd that Orlando stays creamy and fresh while those about him begin to ripen toward extinction.
Thus the central device of the film: It's a cavalcade of changing British attitudes over the sceptered isle's last 400 years. But to make things more amusing still, one bright day in the 17th century, Orlando wakes up after a week's sleep to discover that he's no longer a boy.
Again, part of the joy here is the baldness of the device.
Nobody bothers to explain this spontaneous regeneration (didn't something similar happen in "Jurassic Park?" Hmmmmm.), but it certainly allows for a change in point of view.
From a position of power, the new Ms. Orlando is suddenly in a position of powerlessness. She is now the hunted, and must bear the brunt of indignities and smirks that she could only have suspected and may have even authored before. One hysterical scene pits her in a drawing room with Alexander Pope, who reveals himself to be the T. Rex of smug sexists.
But generally, "Orlando" is too busy having witty fun to turn into a cautionary tale against one sex in favor of the other. It's more like an extremely vivid drawing-room comedy imposed on the background of a historical epic.
It wanders from the frozen London of the 1600s to the battlefields of World War I and has fun all the way. You haven't seen anything like it.
Starring Tilda Swinton and Quentin Crisp
Directed by Sally Potter
Released by Sony Classics