Orlando [1992] – A Whimsical Art-House Drama on Gender Politics

Based on Virginia Woolf’s novella, Sally Potter’s Orlando (1992) is a challenging as well as a slightly frustrating art-house drama. At a glance, it looks like a Merchant Ivory production or like one of those (unimaginative) costume dramas. But this aesthetically-pleasing tale of androgynous British nobleman’s fantastical exploits playfully explores the themes of gender outlooks and personal identity. Having read Virginia Woolf (although I haven’t read Orlando), it is understandable what an arduous task it might have been to adapt the intricate text into a movie. Set across four centuries of British history, the ageless gender-switching protagonist’s emotional journey doesn’t have a conventional narrative arc. Yet Sally Potter’s prodigious visual achievement alongside Tilda Swinton’s intoxicating presence strengthens the free-wheeling plot structure.

Tilda Swinton and Sally Potter have started collaborating on this project five years before it went to production. It’s pretty evident how their long involvement have impeccably nurtured the ideas to come up with best possible devices. Virginia Woolf published the novella in 1928 and is alleged to have used Orlando merely as a conduit to playfully address her bewilderment over gender perceptions and restrictions over different eras and centuries. To align with Woolf’s idea, the script takes a slightly detached perspective, moving between one vignette to another (each situation’s theme is explicitly addressed in inter-titles: eg, death, love, sex, etc), and using it as a canvas for its thematic inquiries. 

The rascally central conceit of Orlando may lack the strong emotional resonance of other felicitated self-discovery journeys, although it makes up for this through the remarkably rich and memorable camerawork. Potter’s elegant camera movement and Swinton’s serenely composed bemusement carries the feeling of whimsy and dry humor oft found in Woolf’s works.

Tilda Swinton’s titular Orlando is a dashing nobleman, born into wealth and privilege. In 1600, the young man has a fateful meeting with elderly Queen Elizabeth (Quentin Crisp). The Queen promises him great deal of wealth and land, provided if he doesn’t ‘grow old and wither’. Orlando decides to do just that: to progress through centuries without ageing. In 1610, Orlando lives in a huge estate and captivated by the arrival of an enchanting Muscovite Princess named Sasha (Charlotte Valandrey). The arrival of Russian diplomats is set in the marvelous background of frozen Thames (with waiters delivering drinks by skating on ice). In the pursuit of love, he lets down his betrothed fiancee, and later Orlando himself is rebuffed by Sasha. Arriving at a conclusion that women are beyond trust and comprehension, Orlando tries to be a poet and fails.

In the late 17th century, he is appointed as an Ambassador for Middle-East country and eventually fumbles in the diplomatic test. Soon Orlando transforms into a woman. Gazing upon his now transformed female body, he says with a note of amazement, Same person. No difference at all…. Just a different sex”. Orland’s spiritual calmness persists as she lives in the puritanical British society where intellectuals spout ridiculous claims on the nature of ‘fairer sex’. Orlando’s properties are threatened since as a woman she has no rights to inherit property. However, she rediscovers love and sex through an American drifter Shelmerdine (Billy Zane). The film ends in the timeline, well past the novella’s period. Orlando is seen cruising on a motorbike with her little daughter in 1990s Britain, excited by the new-age freedom and the ever-changing gender precepts.

Sally Potter’s script does find it difficult to maintain cohesiveness with the breakaway narrative. The laborious task of moving through time and space is not as easy in terms of visuals as compared to richly adorned prose. But as I mentioned earlier, Potter’s aesthetic maneuvers finely conveys Woolf’s treatise on shifting gender roles. The scene between Shelmerdine and Orlando, where the lovers discuss about their desires which stands against social expectations of gendered beings, is brilliantly shot savoring the dry wit and richness in the conversation. The occasional fourth-wall breaking moments may seem silly, but it arrays rightly with acutely self-conscious nature of Virginia Woolf and her central characters. Moreover, the devilish close-up shots of Tilda Swinton’s face as she faces the camera (or us) keep alive the feelings of gaiety in the narrative.

 It’s simply unimaginable how Orlando’s solitary stretch and existentialist muses would have played out on-screen without Tilda Swinton donning the role. It’s debatable whether Swinton was very convincing as a male, but there’s an equanimity and soulfulness in her composure that can’t be as fully realized by another actor. Despite the narrative framework maintaining a distance from its characters, Swinton brings up emotional transparency with greatest skill (her sad posture when she answers the question, ‘Why are you so sad?’ balancingly conveys inherent joy of newfound passion and the lament for its inevitable loss). Considering the narrative’s offbeat flourishes, the performances could have easily turned into caricatured portrayal rather than providing some emotional anchor. Both the excellent supporting cast and Swinton doesn’t do that mistake. The production and costume design immediately conjures the word ‘sumptuous’ from our mind (the film received two well-deserved Oscar nominations in these categories).

Orlando (93 minutes) is an unconventional century-spanning drama that must be watched for clear-eyed directorial gaze and Tilda Swinton’s distinctive screen presence. Despite few clumsy or disjointed narrative missteps, this is an audacious adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s text on preconceived gender expectations.  

Unbelievable [2019] – A Devastating and Powerful Tale about Sexual Assault

The first episode of Netflix’s 8-part miniseries Unbelievable (2019) – created by screenwriter Susannah Grant & novelists Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman -- is profoundly disturbing. It confirms all of our worst fears about institutional incompetence and societal indifference. Unbelievable is based on a 2015 Pulitzer Prize winning article ("An Unbelievable Story of Rape"), which was the joint project of T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong, respectively working for the non-profit news organizations, ProPublica and The Marshall Report. The article details the investigation on string of multiple sexual assaults while also focusing on a sexual assault victim’s nightmarish encounter with the very imperfect criminal justice system. Like every other perplexing true-crime case presented in the streaming platform, Unbelievable is meticulous, excruciating, and enraging with some dramatizations.

As I mentioned before, the 1st episode firmly establishes all the unsettling aspects of the story, although the director Lisa Cholodenko’s admirable display of restraint visualizes the trauma of sexual assault victims with minimal details. The episode opens the morning after Marie Adler (Kaitlyn Dever) from Lynnwood, Washington was raped in 2008. The visibly traumatized 18-year-old, huddled under a comforter, notices her former foster mother Judith’s (Elizabeth Marvel) attempts to soothe her. When Marie is questioned by a detective, the trauma of previous night keeps hitting her in bits and pieces. Around 4 a.m., Marie wakes up to see a tall man in a grey sweater and mask standing next to her bed, threatening her with a knife. He ties her up with her own shoe laces. After raping her for hours, he takes pictures with a camera and says that if she reports the incident to police he’d release the photo online.

Marie decides to report the attack anyway. And more violations await her. Marie grew up in foster care and she’s familiar of abuse from childhood. She’s made to re-live the worst experience of her life through the rigorous questioning that forces her to reiterate the story of her assault again and again. But when Marie’s former foster mother raises doubts on Marie’s ‘reaction’ to the rape and attention-seeking behavior, the lead detective (Eric Lange) and everyone who’s supposed to help her get through the trauma exacerbate the situation. The two male detectives finding inconsistencies in Marie’s account hound her to recant everything. She also retracts her retraction, but the detectives intimidate Marie with false report charges. Eventually, Marie is charged with filing a false report.

While Marie Adler’s story shows how few human elements and institutional apathy can make a mess out of things, there’s other side to Unbelievable; the rare story of dogged individuals who try to impose justice on a world full of shortcomings and disappointment. The series is split into two time-lines, one showcasing the fallout of botched up investigation in Marie’s case, and the other immerses us into the compelling investigation of two detectives pursuing a serial rapist. In 2011, Colorado Detective Karen Duvall (Merritt Wever) investigates the rape of a student named Amber (Danielle MacDonald). Karen questions the woman without forgetting to pay close attention to the woman’s emotional state. She’s professional, sensitive, and thoroughly invests herself into the case.

A random conversation with her detective husband offers Karen information about an eerily similar, unresolved rape case. Karen contacts Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette), a smart and cynical detective in charge of a rape case involving a middle-aged woman. The similarities in their case (a man in a mask carrying a back pack and leaving a spotless crime scene) make the detectives to dig for more such cases.  And unsurprisingly, they stumble upon few other unresolved rape cases in different districts of Colorado. Since Karen and Grace connected their case through pure luck (police departments even within a district rarely communicate), they feel the suspect might be from a military background and possibly working in law enforcement (the meticulously cleaned crime scenes also makes them pursue this angle). Furthermore, the partnership between the two temperamentally different female detectives proves to the most valuable aspect of the investigation.

Unbelievable draws a lot from the contrast between two timelines and eventually shows how in a world that’s decidedly unfair and where people do all sorts of awful things to each other, a great difference can really be made through compassion and competence. The robust current of hope running throughout Karen and Grace’s story-line displaces some of the bitter aftertaste left by Marie’s damaged existence. Both the creators and directors do a good job in maintaining the tension and suspense necessary for a procedural. Most importantly, the creative team avoids depicting sexual assault in an exploitative manner. They rather opt to deftly explore the aftermath of the traumatic event.

Apart from gradually building the profile of the serial rapist, the writers have done a fine job in establishing the tenacious heroic pair at the center, who show up to the male-dominated law enforcement system about the sensitive and fair ways the crimes of sexual nature involving female victims could be handled. The brilliant on-screen chemistry between Wever and Colette also adds to the entrancing qualities of the characters. The writing is particularly excellent when Detective Parker understands the ways he ill-treated the insecure girl. He isn’t made out to be a villain. He is simply part of an imperfect system impacted by a hardwired belief (of looking at those reporting sexual assault with mild skepticism). And there’s glimmer of hope in the manner he acknowledges his mistake and might ‘do better’ the next time.

Like the real investigation and the source material that inspired the series, Unbelievable is thought-provoking and infuriating. Yet some of the narrative elements are overly dramatized and the dialogues at times come across a touch contrived. Moreover, the attempt for a cathartic ending feels a bit formulaic. Nevertheless, it is genuinely affecting to see a sexual assault survivor receiving justice despite all the burdens the judicial system and society places upon her. Overall, Unbelievable is a gripping and unnerving true-crime mini-series, blessed with humane storytelling and incredible performances.