The Good. The Bad & The Badass: Tilda Swinton
There’s no one quite like Tilda Swinton, and I mean that as a compliment. A throwback to the enigmatic actresses of another era, a la Marlene Dietrich, no one really knows too much about Swinton, who keeps her personal life shrouded in mystery and disappears into each role. There’s no such thing as a typical Swinton performance. Each is uncanny and highly unique.
I first became aware of Swinton as a film student, watching her mid-nineties European works in class. I only noticed her presence in American films around the time I saw VANILLA SKY, and she never really became a consistent presence in big studio films until the mid-2000’s, when she received a – much deserved – Oscar win for MICHAEL CLAYTON.
From that point on, she became a familiar face to all manner of film buffs, capable of playing parts in studio-driven blockbuster fare like CONSTANTINE, or more colorful parts in indies like Jim Jarmusch’s THE LIMITS OF CONTROL. This has been a good year from Swinton, with her earning raves for her leading part in A BIGGER SPLASH, and – presumably – a hefty paycheck for her controversial casting as “The Ancient One” in Marvel’s DOCTOR STRANGE.
Lynn Shelton got a lot of bad press when she walked-off the set of Natalie Portman’s JANE GOT A GUN, but hopefully it won’t derail her career too badly as she’s one hell of a director. WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN is a masterpiece, and Tilda Swinton gives the performance of a lifetime as the titular character’s mom, who realizes early-on that her son, played by a chilling Ezra Miller, is a psychopath. This could have been a genre film, but Shelton makes it a sobering domestic drama, and Swinton’s performance as the alternately horrified mom and then - later - the numb guilt-ridden survivor is among the best acting jobs I’ve seen in the last decade or so.
I know that a lot of people, specifically critics, think Luca Guadagnino’s I AM LOVE is a masterpiece, but suffice to say I’m not one of them. An ultra-stylish melodrama, Swinton’s performance is undoubtedly a major achievement in that she has to speak fluent Italian with a Russian accent and pretend not to speak English, but the movie itself is hollow to me. It’s pretty but very superficial, and I enjoyed Guadagnino’s follow-up, A BIGGER SPLASH, a lot more.
It can’t be denied that society has become increasingly open-minded (for the most part anyways) about the concept of gender being somewhat binary, and that’s something that’s increasingly finding its way into film.. The recent PREDESTINATION and TV’s “Transparent” being two outstanding examples. Yet, Sally Potter’s ORLANDO is even more radical and it did so twenty-four years ago, with Swinton playing an immortal nobleman who, over the centuries, becomes a woman, even giving birth. Swinton’s performance was the one that really put her on the map in a big way and it’s a shame modern audiences seem fairly unaware of it, although it was an art-house success in its initial release. It’s well-worth tracking down, especially if you love Swinton (and Billy Zane is pretty great in it too!).
While we may joke about Swinton having an eccentric air about her in interviews, no one can deny that even in what you might presume to be paycheck parts, Swinton goes all-in. Controversy aside, her performance as “The Ancient One” in DOCTOR STRANGE is excellent, but Swinton was even better a couple of years ago in Bong Joon-ho’s epic SNOWPIERCER, where she played the villainous Mason. With a crazed, school-marm gone mad look and a thick brogue, Swinton is unforgettable, and her speech to the lower classes (as poor Noah Taylor is having his arm frozen off) was the first moment that made me realize SNOWPIERCER, despite it’s scant theatrical release, was going to be a masterpiece.
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