The Essentials: The 5 Best Tilda Swinton Performances

Features
by Oliver Lyttelton
December 7, 2011 12:59 PM
4 Comments
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Tilda Swinton is a pretty unconventional kind of movie star. The daughter of a Scottish Major-General and one-time classmate of Princess Diana, she got her start acting in experimental theater and at the Royal Shakespeare Company before going on to become a muse of British iconoclast Derek Jarman. Over time, she's featured in performance art (including sleeping in a glass box in the Serpentine Gallery in London for a week), worked with fashion designers, founded a traveling film festival in the Scottish Highlands, and even appeared on an album by pop eccentric Patrick Wolf. Not exactly Julia Roberts, right?

But all the same, she's become a household name, a favorite of auteurs like Jim Jarmusch, David Fincher and the Coen Brothers, and has cropped up in blockbusters from Danny Boyle's "The Beach" to the "Chronicles of Narnia" series. And most importantly, she's one of our finest actors, winning an Oscar in 2008 for her supporting turn in "Michael Clayton," and seeking out the finest directors the world over, from Bela Tarr to Spike Jonze. For her latest film, it seems that she's found another directorial soulmate in Lynne Ramsay for "We Need to Talk About Kevin." As a mother struggling with the titular child, who seems to have been born bad to the bone, she gives arguably the best performance in her career, and it seemed as good a time as any to look over that eclectic, wonderful body of work, of which we're sure there's much more to come. Check out our five favorite Swinton performances below. 

"Orlando" (1992)
Though her cinematic collaboration with Derek Jarman was already well underway by this point and her theatre career taking off in parallel, it was another arthouse darling, Sally Potter, who would provide Swinton with what can probably be judged her breakout role. In Orlando, the undying, eternally youthful aristocrat who lives for centuries as a man before turning into a woman overnight, Swinton found a part that, though based on Virginia Woolf's 1928 novel, could have been written for her. And not just because of the sexual ambiguity and gender politics that it explores. Swinton is impressive as a man, but this is not a "Crying Game" or "Boys Don't Cry"-style bait-and-switch; the point of the performance is never to fool you. Instead, Potter wisely exploits that other essential trait of Swinton as an actor, her David Bowie-like otherworldliness (if the word "androgynous" has any rival as adjective of choice for Swinton, it might be "unearthly" -- small wonder she has variously played an immortal, a witch and the archangel Gabriel during her career). This alienness, this odd intelligence, fits the character like a glove so that moments, like when the Lady Orlando realises she needs to turn sideways in order for her wide skirts to fit through a doorway, become not just gimmicky symptoms of sexual transformation but relatable instances of feeling like a strange creature trying to fit into the "normal" world. "Orlando" is a visually sumptuous, sometimes impenetrable, sometimes delightful treat, but its greatest coup is in eliciting from Swinton an almost-definitive early role that fully exploits the many facets of her unique and fascinating actorly persona. And even lets her wink at the camera while doing it.

"The Deep End" (2001)
The film which marked Swinton's major breakthrough in the States, and in retrospect makes quite the interesting double-bill partner for "We Need to Talk About Kevin," Scott McGehee and David Siegel's "The Deep End" provides an unusually "normal" role for Swinton as a lonely Californian mother. But it's the wringer that the helmers put her through that makes it so special. When Margaret Hall believes her son (Jonathan Tucker) to have killed his older lover (Josh Lucas), she covers the death up, only to be confronted by a pair of blackmailers (Goran Visnjic and Raymond Barry) who want $50,000 for their silence. In classic noir manner, things get worse and worse for Margaret, putting her into a hole from which it seems there's no escape, and McGehee and Siegel's second best stroke is managing to blend those noirish overtones with the feel of a classic '40s melodrama (indeed, the source material, Elizabeth Sanxay Holding's "The Blank Wall," was filmed before in 1949 as "The Reckless Moment"). Of course, their greatest stroke was casting Swinton, whose turn is something of a cypher at first, but very gradually crystallizes into a powerful portrait of a mother's unconditional love for her son, even if in brief flashes, we see her ambivalence about how deep she's sunk for him. More than that, in her connection with Visnjic's Alek, we see a portrait of deep loneliness. It's a very different performance from 'Kevin,' but there's plenty of DNA in common, and it's a film worth reconsidering in the shadow of Lynne Ramsay's picture.

"Michael Clayton" (2007)
This writer remembers being puzzled when Swinton took the Supporting Actress Oscar home for Tony Gilroy’s “Michael Clayton.” It was a strong year: Cate Blanchett had stuck a mesmerizing landing as Bob Dylan, Saoirse Ronan broke out in “Atonement,” Amy Ryan delivered a moving and volcanic performance in Ben Affleck’s surprisingly strong "Gone Baby Gone", and always-great Ruby Dee had reminded the Academy not to count out octogenarian thespians. But it was Swinton’s Karen Crowder, stuck in the unfortunate position of orchestrating a cover-up for the company that retained her, that was definitively voted the best. Why? It took several viewings of Gilroy’s verbose, morally intricate thriller to appreciate Swinton’s tremendous contribution, playing a lackey to the great beast that is U-North who is inadvertently left in a position to keep an eye on (and contain) Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), a key prosector in a case against her company. Wilkinson is at the top of his game here (he scored a worthy nomination), but his ranting, morally pained Edens pales in complexity to Crowder, hardly a villainess but no less responsible for her exceedingly immoral actions. “Michael Clayton” features a number of outstanding moments but few are as chilling as Crowder **spoiler alert** giving the order to eliminate Edens -- Swinton makes you feel both intense dislike and startling pity for her character who is out of her element and attempting to navigate the world of hired killers with the same mindset that could have conquered a boardroom. Swinton portrays a power player losing at an unfamiliar and barbaric game, with total commitment to the role. It’s a bit low-key to be a career best, but it certainly is a major achievement for any actress.

"Julia" (2008)
Out of the backseat of a car, woozy, struggling to retain balance, Tilda Swinton’s “Julia” emerges from yet another night of bacchanalian debauchery. She’s weathered, pale, her dark eyeshadow contrasted with her pasty, doughy skin. It’s not the ravages of time as much as its the embrace of bad behavior that defines our protagonist in the early moments of Erick Zonca’s dark comedy. “Julia,” however, isn’t sentimentalizing or glamorizing our lead’s proclivity for damaging self-sabotage, if the weak paper cups and peeling wallpaper at her AA meetings are any indication. Soon, the extremely broke Julia finds herself wrapped up in a kidnapping plot that is nothing like what it seems, sending her to Mexico with a frail child she attempts to clumsily hold for ransom. Another actress would have played this for laughs, noting the contrast between a middle class alcoholic rubbing elbows with Mexican gangbangers and trying to figure out how to work a gun. But Swinton’s steely dedication to the desperation of her character is both more real and funnier than this approach, creating an indelible characterization of a broken woman who is both terrified by what she’s involved in and irritated that it’s keeping her from a tall bottle and a broken bar stool. Zonca’s kitchen-sink approach feels real and lived-in, focusing on the destroyed decor of shitty hotel rooms and the peeling leather of a car seat, and yet it’s the lead character that comes across as the film's most authentic element.

"I Am Love" (2009)
There were two movies released in 2010 that aimed to capture the sensuality of Italy through the sexual reawakening of its main character, a middle-aged white woman (and both had the word 'Love' in the title). But whereas Ryan Murphy's "Eat Pray Love," starring mega-watt superstar Julia Roberts, was filmed like an Olive Garden commercial, all snappy edits and smiling faces and M.I.A. songs on the soundtrack, Luca Guadagnino's "I Am Love" is deep, beautiful, luscious and genuinely sexy – all of which can be said about its lead, a bioluminescent Tilda Swinton. Set at the turn of the millennium, Swinton plays the matriarch in a family of textile manufacturers in Milan (some of that millennial dread creeps in with an international deal to expand the business worldwide creating uneasy bonds) and the movie positively bursts at the seams with oversized melodramatic opulence. This isn't a bad thing. At all. Swinton's young daughter is afraid to come out to her mother, Swinton develops a steamy relationship with a young chef (the film doubles as food porn), and there's even a violent accidental death, all set to stirring compositions by John Adams which, if the movie wasn't already shot in widescreen, would have added an even more expansive sense of depth. But it's Swinton's performance -- raw, open, and immediately identifiable -- that will leave you gasping. Her struggle to find identity and inspiration at middle age, in a country far from home, is sensuous and seductive. Not only does she weave you through the delicate emotional beats with a remarkable subtlety, but when it comes to the film's final, showier sequence, unless your heart is made of stone, her character's final desperate choice and act will leave you in tears.

Honorable Mentions: All of Tilda Swinton's collaborations with Derek Jarman are worth checking out, but first and foremost among them has to be "Edward II." One of the director's very best films, and a shining light in the New Queer Cinema movement of the late '80s, Swinton deservedly won the Volpi Cup in Venice for her performance as the manipulative Queen Isabella, and it's her first truly great performance. She's also superb in an unusually low-key turn in Tim Roth's gruelling drama "The War Zone," while taking the back seat in a very different film, Bela Tarr's "The Man From London," but proves just as striking.  

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4 Comments

  • dontgetnastybro | December 7, 2011 9:44 PMReply

    The final confrontation with Michael Clayton left me speechless. That's one hell of a movie, and everybody in it (including the aforementioned Swinton) are on the top of their game.

  • Lorna Singh | December 7, 2011 9:36 PMReply

    She is so talented,giving everything in each performance.I'm looking forward to 'We Need To Talk About Kevin.'

  • Kevin | April 5, 2014 2:12 PM

    We need to talk about Kevin is by far her best performance, in fact it's ridiculous that she wasn't even nominated, and the film is great as well.

  • Luke | December 7, 2011 5:33 PMReply

    Agree! Excellent actress!

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