Sumptuous and extravagant may be the best words to describe Sally Potter's Orlando, a gorgeous screen adaptation of Virginia Woolf's l928 novel.

The timing of this movie is perfect, coming right after two disappointing blockbusters Cliffhanger and Jurassic Park, and Arnold Schwarzenegger's debacle, Last Action Hero. Here is a movie that, for a change, needs to be seen on the big screen and demands more attention than the average Hollywood product.

I am always suspicious of co-productions because they tend be compromising–sometimes a result of using actors with varied accents, different styles. But Potter's film is a rare European co-production, a unified work that bears the signature and vision of its maker.

Written in l928, Orlando was apparently inspired by Virginia Woolf's friendship with the aristocratic Vita Sackville-West. Written right after Woolf's great book To the Lighthouse, the novel revolves around an intriguing character that has lived for 400 years and changes sex in the course of time.

Potter's adaptation is loose and inventive, maintaining the spirit of Woolf's novel, though shrewdly deviating from it in bringing the story up to the present. It is by no means a slavishly made literary film, like the early, dull movies of James Ivory and Ismail Merchant.

Playing at every major film festival (I saw it in Toronto, last September), Orlando has already acquired the label of an international art-house favorite. Miraculously, Potter's politics and the film's feminist agenda in no way interfere with enjoying this visually stunning film.

Highly provocative, Orlando addresses itself to the issue of changing sexual identities through the eyes of Orlando, an ageless character (played by Tilda Swinton), over the course of four centuries. A witty exploration of sex and gender roles, the tale progresses from the court society of the Elizabethan era, through the intrigues of a central Asian ruler's domain, into and through Victorian London, and onto the present.

Orlando's first reaction when she becomes a woman is “no difference at all–just a difference sex.” Soon, however, she realizes that, under English law, as a woman, she is no longer entitled to her rank and estate. She is also not taken seriously by the prominent figures of her day.

The Victorian chapter in the film is particularly strong as it chronicles a time of wildness for men, but repression for women. Indeed, Orlando ends up sacrificing everything, both love and inheritance. Finally, she emerges in present-time London as an ordinary woman, who ironically in losing everything has gained herself–a truly liberated identity.

Tilda Swinton, whose acting you may have seen in Derek Jarman's movies (Edward II, last year), is always riveting to watch. As an actress, she is blessed with a statuesque screen presence and unconventional beauty. Swinton is offhandedly comic and engagingly attractive as both Orlando the man and the woman, though she is more convincing as a woman.

Quentin Crisp, author of the scandalously autobiographical novel The Naked Civil Servant who established notoriety in his stage show in New York in the late l970s, also gives a most credible performance as Queen Elizabeth I. Never for a second will you doubt that the role is played by a man.

The aesthetic sensibility shown in Orlando is remarkable in art design, sets, and costumes. Potter shot some of the film in Russia's St. Petersburg, which stands in for medieval London in the winter, and in Uzbekistan, as the Middle Eastern country where Orlando spends a decade as British ambassador at the court of the Khan (Lothaire Bluteau). Using some of Peter Greenway's previous collaborators (production designers Ben van Os and Jan Roelfs, and costume designer Sandy Powell), explains why the picture's look bears resemblance to Greenway's movies, specifically the elegant Draughman's Contract.

But ultimately, Orlando is Potter's movie–and success. I met Potter in the l980s in Boston, where I saw three of her four films, including The Gold Rush with Julie Christie, in l983, and London Story, two years later. But nothing she has done before indicates or prepares for the unique talents she brings to this movie. In Orlando, Potter sets a tonality that is critical and pointed, but never academic or didactic (an inherent danger in such films). As writer-director, she provides a stimulating exploration of a topical subject–Virginia Woolf should, of course, get credit for writing 65 years ago a most relevant novel for our times–that has rarely been depicted so expressively.