Sheaffer’s Queer Perspective on Orlando

by: , November 7, 2023

Book reviewed: Russell Sheaffer (2022), Orlando, Quabec: McGill-Queen’s University Press.


In his analysis of Sally Potter’s iconic film, Orlando (1992), Russell Sheaffer argues that Virginia Woolf and Sally Potter are ‘co-conspirators in the exploding of normative subjectivity’ (123). Convinced that the film remains ‘intellectually and aesthetically seductive’ (3) to contemporary audiences, Sheaffer cannot help wondering why, in the classes he teaches to undergraduates, Orlando remains ‘challenging for straight, cisgender young men’ (99). From this original conflict, seduction vs. challenge, he sets out to question Potter’s film through gender representation, adaptation theory and the feminist gaze.

The essay is divided into three efficient chapters that privilege close readings of the movie’s representation strategies in connexion to Potter’s four successive screenplay drafts and Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Woolfian resonances pervade Shaeffer’s text. His main thought-provoking argument is that, in recreating Orlando following 1990s feminist politics, Sally Potter crafted a feminist cinematic syntax which nurtures a longing gaze, a loving gaze, a gentle reciprocal one (117) and fosters a ‘caring collaboration’ (119) between character and audience, born of the caring collaboration between director and actor.

Potter’s imagining of Woolf’s novel evolved queerly through four successive drafts and Shaefer subtly traces the evolution of the project.

1988: Potter takes her pen to sketch a faithful translation of Woolf’s novel, its narrative energy centring around the character of Orlando.

1989: Potter and actor Tilda Swinton craft a presentation book which contains 23 colour photographs, the ‘first visual glimpses,’ of Orlando, both male and female, around the grounds of Knole House. Concomitantly, Potter outlines a second, more condensed, draft, which recentres Orlando as ‘a powerful holder of the gaze’ (76).

1990: The third draft recreates Orlando, crafting a politically charged reimagining of Woolf’s character through the construction of an ‘interpersonal relationship between audience and Orlando by way of voiceover’ (79). Doing this, says Shaeffer, Potter reconciles ‘the lesbian feminist potential’ of Woolf’s mock biography with ‘her own interest in a story about genderlessness’ (83). 

1991: With her fourth and final draft, Potter emphasizes the film’s queerness and its deliberate genderfucking by making it unclear whether or not ‘Orlando has been a ‘woman’ the whole time’ (97).

As he dissects sequences, going back and forth between scripts and film, Shaeffer never indulges in a game of spot-the-difference, but subtly unravels the complex gender play at stake. He thus considers the symbolical importance of queer icons Tilda Swinton and Quentin Crisp, as both colour the reception of the film. Weaving his way between texts and images, he aptly shows the importance of Potter’s film in the canon and culture of queer film. This allows for a cogent dissection of the film’s aesthetics and adaptation strategies, bringing new insights into Potter’s creative process and the making of Orlando as a fabulous and iconic character.

Shaeffer’s queer perspective offers a wonderful reflexion on feminist inheritance (‘for we think back through our mothers if we are women,’ says Woolf) and empowering creativity. Bringing together Woolf’s feminist politics and Potter’s filmic translations, Shaeffer makes an important point on what reading Woolf’s text means in contemporary times (both in the 1990s and today in the 2020s). It also shows how Woolf’s text and Potter’s film can now be endlessly appropriated and remodelled, forever gliding through time.

A few months ago, philosopher Paul B. Preciado released Orlando, My Political Biography, which reshuffles the cards of gender binarity, reality and fiction, texts, and images. Anchored in Preciado’s trans experience, the film ambitions to show Orlando’s actual life as they are embodied by 26 trans and non-binary people, aged from 8 to 70. Furthering Woolf’s revolutionary vision, Preciado actualises the revolution through embodiment, desire, and time. An infinite conversation of shared gazes.

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