Tilda Swinton: A Viewer’s Guide

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Aside from looking amazing in trousers and sometimes having Fido Dido hair, Tilda Swinton stands out a mile in any Hollywood identity parade. She’s well known for boasting one of the most eclectic, intriguing bodies of work of any actor currently working, an Academy Award and a determination to do things her own way. After all, among all the battle-hardened Method actors and wet-behind-the-ears starlets, it’s pretty rare to hear a movie star confessing that, all things being equal, they’d just as happily be doing something else. Swinton, though, is a pretty rare movie star. “Acting,” she’s said, “is something that I have relatively little interest in”. God help us when she finds something she is interested in. Until then, we’re happy to watch her light up the work of directors like Jarmusch, Fincher, Jarman and the Coen brothers. Now with We Need To Talk About Kevin, she’s united with fellow Scot Lynne Ramsay, to wow and disturb festival crowds with a powerful adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s novel. It’s time to talk about Tilda.

ESSENTIAL VIEWING: Michael Clayton (2007)

Every thriller needs a decent baddie, someone to hatch evil schemes, organise assassinations and sign the cheques. Tilda Swinton provides a nasty addition to the canon in Tony Gilroy’s ‘70s-flavoured thriller, picking up an Oscar in the process. As Karen Crowder, she’s the well-groomed face of corporate corruption, clad in a suit Condoleezza Rice would kill for and an air of anything-for-a-buck amorality. Legal counsel for U-North, an agribusiness giant with a dark secret to keep, she’s obliged to get her hands dirty, arranging the murder of Tom Wilkinson's loose cannon attorney. But playing nasty is the easy bit. What marks Swinton’s performance out is the way she humanises Crowder, making her believable, even relatable. Behind a façade of power suits and froideur, she’s struggling to keep it together. Think of Max von Sydow in Sydney Pollack’s Three Days Of The Condor, John Lithgow in Blow Out or any of the Parallax Corporation’s nameless goons: Swinton’s lawyer rivals them all for ruthlessness, but watch her sweating off a pot belly on the treadmill and try not to feel at least a pang of empathy, too.


Never afraid to clock on for sexy time, Swinton makes a bold move through gender and time in Sally Potter’s colourful adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s novel. She’s mesmerising as the title character: a time traveller, shapeshifter and walking origin story for anyone who’s agonising about the significance of sexuality, gender and upbringing. When we meet Orlando he’s an Elizabethan courtier engaged in an affair with the Fairie Queen herself - or ‘himself’, considering she’s played by Quentin Crisp - that flickers and burns like a chamber candle. A switch of epochs – and genders – eventually finds her living as a 19th century woman, hobnobbing with poets and having an affair with a seafaring Billy Zane. She’s basically Highlander in a wig. It’s a metaphysical delight that charms and confounds in equal measure, and Swinton is its swooning heart. It’s no common film that has a woman playing a man having an affair with a man playing a woman (‘Some Like It Smock’?) but then we did say she did things her own way.


For a polymath with an IQ higher than your phone number, Tilda Swinton wears her smarts lightly. In Luca Guadagnino’s refined Italian drama she flaunts her impressive Italian as Russian émigrée Emma Recchi, an outsider married into an ailing Milanese family pitched somewhere between the Addams and the Friedmans on the dysfunction scale. Swinton’s natural restraint serves her character perfectly, with Recchi’s thin tissue of gentility masking deep pools of passion that fizz to the surface when she embarks on a high-risk affair with her son’s friend Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini). Here Swinton’s exploration of female sexuality – mined previously her collaborations with Derek Jarman and films like Orlando and Female Perversions – zones in on the darker, scarier conflict between duty and desire, a battle where the craving for love (and a good bonk) usually wins out in a life full of empty pleasures. So it proves here, with Swinton evoking the dual life of a woman living on a knife-edge with unusual skill.

RECOMMENDED: Edward II (1992)

If Derek Jarman were still alive and turning out art-house flicks dripping in decadence and style, it’s inconceivable that Tilda Swinton wouldn’t be adorning them. The actress describes the seven films the pair made together as “a kind of a kindergarten”, albeit one in which the toys and rattles are probably swapped for poetry tomes and the nanny has an Oedipal complex. The success of Jarman’s arty biopic Caravaggio flowed on into this bold refashioning of Christopher Marlowe’s play as a weirdly postmodern treat, replete with gay battalions, Sony Walkmans and Annie Lennox cameos. It’s rich in anachronism and allegory (if you’re looking for an inspiration for Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, look no further) and the Hermes-clad Swinton is dynamite as the jilted French queen who can only gaze jealously on as King Edward (Steven Waddington) carries on with his dishy pal, Piers Gaveston (Andrew Tiernan). OK, so she watches and then turns into a furious, gun-toting vamp. Everyone has a breaking point.

RECOMMENDED: Burn After Reading (2008)

The Coen brothers’ spy caper is full of cornball joys – Brad Pitt’s tracksuited idiot; Frances McDormand’s vain accomplice; J. K. Simmons’ despairing CIA man – and Swinton is clearly having enormous fun amongst all the nitwittery. She’s one half of the adulterous couple who unwittingly spark all the Bourne-meets-the-Marx-Brothers shenanigans. It probably helps that her paramour is her Michael Clayton co-star, George Clooney, an actor who’s never more at home than when he’s sending up his own suave persona. Still, Swinton gives a delightfully exasperated turn in a rare comic role. Admittedly she’s the straight axis around which this world of lunacy spins, but she manages to keep a straight face while Clooney’s pervy spook builds her a home-made sex toy in his basement, and that takes some doing.



FOR THE FAN: Constantine (2005)

Those who carp about this film’s various failings of fidelity to its comic inspiration are legion (it should be Liverpudlian; Constantine should be blond and not Keanu Reeves; why is Shia LaBeouf?) but virtually no one raises a fuss over the casting of Swinton as the angel Gabriel because she seems so obviously, blindingly right as Heaven’s foremost warrior angel. As in Orlando, she walks a sexually ambiguous line; as in her delightfully unexpected turn as the White Witch in the Narnia films, she exploits that strange, otherworldly presence to great effect and just seems permanently, subtly out of synch with her surroundings. Her part is surprisingly complicated too: while this angel is full of grace, it’s notably short on love and mercy. Swinton herself may not hold these more commercial roles in high regard, but we’d rather like to see her in more supernatural turns that make the most of her extraordinary impact.



ONE TO MISS: The Beach (2000)

Every actor tends to have at least one turkey stinking up their IMDb page. Not Swinton. Her films aren’t to all tastes – you’d struggle to find anyone to fight Female Perversions’ corner – and many inspire admiration rather than love, but she’s got a quality control mechanism that we’d like her to lend to, say, Nicolas Cage. If there’s one movie where she’s on less than stellar form it’s Danny Boyle’s messy Gap Yah thriller, The Beach. As the cultish leader of traveller commune, she’s charged with delivering the subtle menace to hold those acolytes under her spell. She’s half-decent in the part – particularly in a gruelling scene where she orders a dying Frenchman to be abandoned for no worse a crime than being munched by a shark –but she’s poorly served by the ponderous horrors that unfold as the film spirals towards its fevered climax. Somehow we doubt this one has pride of place on her DVD shelf.