No one plays a woman in constant duress quite as well as Tilda Swinton. Don’t get me wrong, she can hit any emotion demanded of her, but in looking over the roles I’ve chosen as her best, the majority of them highlight Swinton at her most unnerved. Whether she’s scrambling to protect her son, herself, her lover, or the billion-dollar corporation she works for, there’s simply no match for Swinton’s desperation. And it’s for that reason that Swinton is, and I’m sure will remain, one of the very finest actresses currently working in film.
The Deep End (2001)
Soon after Swinton approaches her son’s lover (played with the charm of a snake by Josh Lucas) things go wrong for the Hall family very very quickly. There’s trickery, blackmail, murder – so many times during the film, it appears as thought the jig is up for innocent little Margaret. But looks certainly can be deceiving.
Broken Flowers (2005)
Because Swinton’s screentime in Broken Flowers clocks in at less than two minutes, it’s fair to say that this is definitely not one of Swinton’s most discussed roles. What it is, however, is easily one of my favorites.
By the time I saw Jim Jarmusch’s remarkable little film, I knew damn well who Tilda Swinton was. But I don’t think it was until months later that I realized she played the final former lover of Bill Murray’s cross-country quest to locate the mother of his suspected son. Most of the women on Murray’s voyage treat him openly, others timidly, and one even sexually. All are nice, except Penny. Clad in white trash-perfect attire, heavy eye make up and a killer attitude, Penny spits venom at Murray’s character, giving the film a shocking jolt of tension. It’s a remarkable performance, never mind its length.
Michael Clayton (2007)
I thought Cate Blanchett had the 2007 Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in the bag. Maybe Amy Ryan would take the steam of her critics awards and nab it, or possibly veteran Ruby Dee could pull an upset, but certainly not Swinton, I mean, she didn’t do anything in Michael Clayton, right?
So when Swinton’s name was called, I took it as a sign of faith. The Oscar voters knew that her desperate work as the desperate Karen Crowder was something we rarely see: a woman in complete self-inflicted peril, without the benefit of monologues, tears or all that much time on screen. In short, after Swinton won, I went back and judged her work in the film. Harshly. At first glance, sure, you can say Swinton isn’t doing too much in the film, when in fact, she’s actually doing everything.
Early in Michael Clayton, Sydney Pollack bellows aloud: “Where the fuck is Karen Crowder?” Ha, wouldn’t she like to know.
The best, most sadly overlooked performance of Tilda Swinton’s career is her starring work in Erick Zonca’s criminally ignored Julia.
In the film, itself based on and inspired by John Cassavetes’ Gloria, Swinton plays a reckless alcoholic who parties, sleeps around, loses jobs – you name it. In spite of her recklessness (or is it because of it…?) Julia is propositioned to kidnap a boy and split the ransom money. And, given Julia’s insatiable aptitude for fucking things up, the situation goes very wrong very fast, resulting in a unique thriller rooted by a devastating and daring performance.
In his review of the film, Roger Ebert noted that Swinton will take on any role regardless of ego, paycheck, vanity or career path. All that matters, he said, is whether the movie interests her. Couldn’t agree more. That is what makes Swinton one of the best we have.
I Am Love (2009)
I Am Love didn’t sound like a movie I wanted to see. An Italian family melodrama about wealth, class, and infidelity, made by a guy I was unfamiliar with, starring people I’d never heard of. Enter Tilda Swinton, who turned my apathy into curiosity. And in watching the film, my curiosity was flipped to unexpected admiration.
I Am Love is a uniquely executed, visually stunning, and impeccably acted drama about a well-to-do housewife who decides to stray from her marriage with her son’s friend. Speaking flawless Italian with a slight Russian accent (a great little hint that while Emma is a part of the wealthy family she married into, she’s not really part of it), Swinton portrays her character’s initial tediousness, quickly developed lust, and eventual dread, all with the subtle wonderment that we’ve come to expect from her. We’re never entirely sure of Emma’s motivations, but we have the best of times trying to pick the pieces apart.
The Best of the Best
We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)
When I set out to draft this post, I honestly thought I would choose Julia as Swinton’s best role, not just for the sake of being different, but because she really is quite flawless in that film. But upon rewatching We Need to Talk About Kevin, I simply cannot turn my back on the miracle(s) she executes here.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is a dark, relentless film, and Swinton is its anchor. I spoke earlier of Swinton’s knack for portraying desperate characters, and I believe Eva Khatchadourian to be the definitive summation of those roles. As we track Eva from a carefree young woman, to a despondent new mother, to a mortified middle-aged housewife, there’s simply nothing about Eva’s despair that you can ignore.
Just look at the still I’ve chosen to represent her work here. If you’ve seen the film, you know that just below the frame is a stroller containing Eva’s newborn, ceaselessly crying child. And playing over the soundtrack are the very loud sounds of construction equipment. The jackhammers pounding into the sidewalk are Eva’s first semblance of relief since her boy was born. They drown out the cries, and they bring her peace.
I remember the first time I saw We Need to Talk About Kevin, and how struck I was by that simple moment. I thought, “Wow, this lady’s got it bad.” I didn’t know the half of it, but Swinton’s fearless, tireless performance had me hooked from frame one. Which is something I could say about damn near anything she’s in.
Other Notable Roles
|In Vanilla Sky|
The War Zone (1999)
The Beach (2000)
Vanilla Sky (2001)
Young Adam (2003)
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005)
The Man from London (2007)
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
Burn After Reading (2008)
The Limits of Control (2009)
Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
the Cast of Django Unchained
Michael Clarke Duncan
Philip Baker Hall
Philip Seymour Hoffman
the Cast of Lincoln
William H. Macy
John C. Reilly