Style Court

Textiles, Art History, Gardens, and a Little Mental Traveling with Courtney Barnes 2006-2016


Eyes Wide Open: Orlando (Part 1)

 [Screengrab via YouTube.]

Earlier this year, Sally Potter's 1992 film, Orlando (an adaptation of Virginia Woolf's book), was re-released. For the visually oriented, the film offers seriously sumptuous fare. One Elizabethan scene even includes a literal feast of flowers, and Oscar-winner Sandy Powell designed the costumes. Writing for Slate, Dan Kois notes that when Orlando came to the Sundance film festival in 1993, it probably appeared to be more Merchant Ivory than Sundance but, he asserts, Potter's interpretation -- her "mix of the ornate and the offhand" -- went on to pave the way for some of Wes Anderson's work as well as Sofia Coppola's playful Marie Antoinette.

 [Screengrab via YouTube.] 

Artistic productions are especially good sources of inspiration during the holidays, so I thought I'd highlight just a few visual aspects to look for when watching Orlando.

First, Potter's color-coding. As a commentary on the Golden Age of Elizabeth I, all scenes that take place during the Elizabethan era are dominated by warm tones -- reds, yellows, coppers and golds. Later, when Orlando is living in the Victorian period, greens take over to signify new life ahead.

 [Screengrab via YouTube.] 

Two historic houses were used for location shoots: Hatfield House and Blenheim Palace. Both are still in private hands, not part of England's National Trust, but I asked NT's Emile de Bruijn of Treasure Hunt to share his personal observations of the aristocratic old dwellings. Right off the bat, he pointed out that each is still thriving and attracts crowds of visitors.

More from Emile:

"Hatfield House began as a royal palace, and Queen Elizabeth I spent her youth there. There is a tree in the park which is supposed to mark the spot where she received the news that she had become Queen following her sister Mary's death."

[Great Hall at Hatfield House]

Continuing, he explains, "Part of the old palace is still there, a beautiful weathered red brick building. In recent decades Mollie, Dowager Marchioness of Salisbury -- an important twentieth-century gardener in her own right, and a pioneer of the organic movement -- restored the Elizabethan garden, and she also planted an amazing scented garden nearby, focusing on plants with strong fragrances.

[Image via Barnes & Noble.]

The Cecil (pronounced to rhyme with thistle) family of Hatfield goes back to William Cecil, a self-made man who rose to prominence under Queen Elizabeth I and became an indispensable minister in her court. Hatfield House was actually built by his son Robert, the 1st Earl of Salisbury, in the reign of James I, and it still has a strongly Jacobean appearance, including its picturesque silhouette.

[Grand Staircase at Hatfield House]

In Victorian times the 3rd Marquess of Salisbury was three times Prime Minister and Hatfield was a great political center. There are still many state papers of the period in the Hatfield archive -- Lord Salisbury saw no problem in literally taking his work home with him, and keeping it there! (No thoughts of Wikileaks in those days!)

[Chinese Bedroom at Hatfield House]

It was also in the time of the 3rd Marquess that they installed electric light at Hatfield, with live wires running along the ceilings. Occasionally these would erupt into flames, but they would just throw a few cushions up to put it out -- a nice example of aristocratic insouciance!"

In part two, we'll look at Blenheim Palace.

Related past post: Dramatic Color.


P.Gaye Tapp at Little Augury said...

They are both glorious houses,as is the movie. my VHS is worn out, I will be getting this promptly. pgt

Style Court said...

Gaye -- The DVD 'bonus features' are unconventional, which probably comes as no surprise! There is a long documentary style segment about the Russian locations almost used for filming as well as a segment on Uzbek locations. Only a smidge on the costumes. But I think it's right up your alley!

quintessence said...

I am embarrassed to admit that I have never seen this film but you have certainly piqued my curiosity - and I will watch it that much more informed!! Fascinating!

Style Court said...

Q --

I'll be interested to hear what you think. I just scratched the surface about a few visual components but the Slate story explains the movie well!

Emile de Bruijn said...

I feel honoroued to see my humble sentences appear in your blog!

Rereading that bit about the tree at Hatfield where Elizabeth heard that she was queen, it struck me how filmic that really is:

Red-haired princess and her ladies under tree doing ladylike things; group of horesemen appears in distance, ladies all aflutter; important-looking man dismounts, Elizabeth comes forward to face him with mixture of bashfulness and determination; man dofs hat and bows deeply saying 'Ma'am, the Queen is dead, you are the new Queen'; camera pulls back to show all bowing to Elizabeth, framed by tree.

Perhaps I have half-remembered this from one of the films about her, I am not sure, but the scene has great potential, doesn't it? :)

Janet said...

One of my favorite things to do when watching period dramas filmed on location at various houses is to spot how rooms from one house are mixed with rooms from another house as if they were part of the same! So, I love seeing this post (and reading Emile's insight on each house). Looking forward to part 2.

Style Court said...

Emile -- I'm honored that you contributed! Again, thank you. And yes, I thought of the cinematic scene when you first mentioned 'Elizabeth's tree.' :)

Style Court said...

Janet --

Fascinating point. Now that will always be on my mind!

Anonymous said...

Love this film very much, but visually speaking, the Victorian-era scenes were a bit confusing, costume-wise. First we see Orlando in a circa 1850's gown. Then we see her in a circa 1870's gown with a bustle, even though the time period was supposed to be the same. About as annoying to me as that time I noticed an electrical cord coming out of an oil lamp in the film, "Age of Innocence", or saw a Catholic priest saying Mass with his stole OVER his chasuble in the film, "The Field", set about 40 years before the Church allowed this.