Orlando (1992) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

It seems quite certain that childhood influences determine the character and nature of a human being to a great degree. This impact may be as great or greater than the influences of genetics and free will. Given certain circumstances in your childhood, it isn't difficult to foresee certain outcomes in your adulthood, even if you would prefer to choose otherwise.

Virginia Woolf was raised in dusty old mansions and home-schooled by her father, a literary critic who married Thackaray's daughter. Woolf never interacted with children outside of her immediate family. Her half-sister was committed to a mental institution at an early age. Her mother died when Woolf was in early adolescence. Her half sister took her mother's place, but she herself died only two years later. Her father suffered a slow, lingering, painful death from cancer, and she was sexually abused by an older stepbrother.

In short, her life made a Strindberg play seem as carefree and happy-go-lucky as an episode of the Soupy Sales show.

By her own admission, she was a virtual stranger to many aspects of normal human behavior. "Think how I was brought up! No school; mooning about alone among my father's books; never any chance to pick up all that goes on in schools—throwing balls; ragging; slang; vulgarities; scenes; jealousies!" For most of us, childhood means exposure to many different personality types, and many different modes of speech. Woolf knew nothing about the world except for the small part occupied by her own family. She didn't understand how average people thought, or dressed, or talked.

I don't think it would have required Sigmund Freud to predict that her adult life would be unhappy, that she had a good chance to develop severe depressions, and that she would have a difficult time relating to average people. There was also probably a pretty fair likelihood that she would become a lesbian, or suicidal, or both. And it probably was no surprise that she grew up to be a writer. Since she didn't really know anything about people, she had to be the type of author whose concerns were not everyday human interactions, but rather abstract social issues, literary techniques, artistic movements, religion, politics, and the treatment of women.

  • Lytton Strachey wrote about Woolf's "To the Lighthouse": "It is really most unfortunate that she rules out copulation - not the ghost of it visible - so that her presentation of things becomes little more... than an arabesque - an exquisite arabesque, of course."
  • Louis Kronenberger reviewed Woolf's "The Waves" in The New York Times by saying that the author was not really concerned with people at all, but "the poetic symbols, of life--the changing seasons, day and night, bread and wine, fire and cold, time and space, birth and death and change." (You have to love the language of literary criticism. I wonder if the same people write the wine reviews.)

Oh, what the hell. Dig one level further into Woolf's childhood, then go out on a limb and predict that all of her adult friends would be similarly rarified, and that they would meet regularly to discuss serious abstract matters with a minimum of gaiety and frivolity. It is not known whether Woolf ever spoke to any unrelated children at any time in her life, but it is doubtful that she would have been able to relate to them, or they to her.


Tilda Swinton does a full-frontal nude scene. Halfway through the movie, halfway through her life, she stops being a man and wakes up a woman. That morning, she studies her naked self in the mirror.

In short, her childhood prepared her for a life as a major nutcase. A brilliant nutcase, to be sure, but a nutcase nonetheless. I suppose some with a more deterministic view would say her childhood MADE her a major nutcase. Frankly, I don't know enough about psychology to comment. I do know that her life turned out pretty much the way you might have expected if you had met her as a little girl. Although she was married to a man, she was sexually interested in women. Her Orlando character, upon which this movie is based, was based on her female lover. In fact, the book was illustrated with pictures of that very lover, Vita Sackville-West, dressed as Orlando. Woolf felt that the most interesting people were essentially androgynous, or perhaps hermaphroditic. She wrote, "Perhaps a mind that is purely masculine cannot create, any more than a mind that is purely feminine...".

I don't know if there is any such thing as a purely masculine mind in the first place, but I suppose Hemingway was about as far as a person can go in that direction, and he seemed to create quite well. Ditto Tolstoy, and Shakespeare.

Well, what can you say? She was nuts.

At any rate, Woolf's mental condition deteriorated until she was finally overcome by the imaginary voices in her head, and she committed suicide by weighing down her pockets with stones, then walking into the Ouse River in Sussex.

This particular story, Orlando, traces the destiny of an androgynous protagonist who begins with a male identity in the Elizabethan court, and finishes with a female identity in the present day. There is really no attempt to explain how Orlando could live forever, other than to note that Queen Elizabeth told him he could have a grand estate as long as he stayed young and beautiful forever, so he did. There is no real explanation of how Orlando mutated one morning into a woman. The eternal life and the metamorphosis are simply "givens" in the book's equation. Woolf uses that starting point to deal with the changing roles of gender and class within English society over time.

DVD info from Amazon

  • Widescreen anamorphic 1.85:1

  • no meaningful features

I've now told you a bit about what Woolf's personality was like, the general tone of her work, and what this specific storyline involves. The rest of the review is simply this: if that sounds inviting to you, the movie is done quite well. If I absolutely had to review the movie on a "straight" newspaper, I would have been forced to be mostly positive. Actually, I think the story works fairly well on its own terms, but not brilliantly. Tilda Swinton didn't seem at all like a man in the first half. No matter how effete were the dandies of Elizabethan England, they surely would have identified her immediately as a female. In my opinion, this really creates a problem in the credibility of the film. (Although the fact that Tilda is a woman playing a man in Elizabeth's court is at least partially offset by the fact that Queen Elizabeth was played by a man!)

The Critics Vote

  • General USA consensus: two and a half stars. Ebert 3.5/4, Berardinelli 2/4.

  • Rotten Tomatoes summary. Only seven reviews. 100% positive, but this seems like ballot stuffing, since they ignored Berardinelli's negative review, and they normally use his reviews in their elite group.

The People Vote ...

  • It grossed $5 million in the USA. The production budget was about the same.


The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this film is a C. It's essentially a serious, laboriously paced treatise on the nature of gender and class. The performances are good, although some of the unnecessary camera movement is irritating and distracting. It is a capable film, but for a very tiny audience.

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