“Edward II” (1991)
Derek Jarman’s accomplished adaptation of the Christopher Marlowe play features Swinton at her most regal and commanding. Winner of the Best Actress Prize at the Venice Film Festival, Swinton is an emotional powerhouse as Queen Isabella, the rejected wife of King Edward II, who falls into a provocative mind game between her husband and his lover, Piers Gaveston. The three all harbor passionate desires, though mounting political threats force them to use one another as chess pieces in a royal game of power. As lovers become enemies and allies find themselves torn apart by affairs, Swinton expertly charts her character’s journey with the nobility she deserves. Measured and reserved, Swinton always seems just seconds away from cracking her poised facade and revealing her scorned soul.
Swinton’s striking androgyny is one of her biggest strengths as an actress, and it has never been put to more piercing and dramatic use than in Sally Porter’s ambitious adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando: A Biography.” Like the novel, the film is a vast historical adventure that follows a poet who changes gender from man to woman across centuries, meeting key historical and literary figures and falling in and out of love. Swinton’s shifting physical looks make her the quintessential performer for the role, though it’s really the ways she manifests the emotional undertones of each gender that anchors her work here. Forced to act in certain ways and adhere to the gender standards of each evolving era, Swinton creates a character cursed by contradictions. Equal parts sensitive and abrasive, passionate and reserved, Swinton’s “Orlando” performance might just be her very best.
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“Broken Flowers” (2005)
Though ostensibly a Jim Jarmusch-driven vehicle for a forlorn Bill Murray, the real allure of “Broken Flowers” lies in the performances of its female characters. Following Don (Murray) as he sifts through past relationships in search of a son who may or may not exist, “Broken Flowers” visits four women with varying degrees of success: Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange and finally, Tilda Swinton. Swinton’s Penny, in her oversized flannel and smudged eyeliner, is clearly unenthused to see Don, who greets him with nothing more than a question wrapped in an obscenity and ends his pilgrimage with a swift hook to the face. Though unquestionably in a supporting role, Swinton’s fun and peevish turn as a tough and totally-over-it ex is the kind of performance that proves her ability to make even a small part unforgettable.
Mike Mills’ idiosyncratic comedy-drama centers on a 17-year-old who, as the title suggests, still has the habit of sucking his thumb. As he endures one treatment after the next to rid himself of this oddity — from hypnosis to a Ritalin prescription — Mills crafts a strangely universal tale about letting go of our childhood crutches once and for all. Enhancing Mills’ coming-of-age theme are his adult characters, all of whom are suffering from their own cases of arrested development. Although Swinton’s matriarch, Audrey, should be aware of what’s going on with her son, she is too preoccupied with her fascination over a television star, played by Benjamin Bratt. Audrey desperately wants to enter a contest to see him, and she pulls out all the stops to make herself attractive for their fist meeting. Just like her son, Audrey’s emotional disconnect manifests in a strange habit, and the actress shows layers of nagging hilarity and soundness that makes Audrey an integral part of Mills’ grand theme.
“Michael Clayton” (2007)
The role that forced a majority of American moviegoers to pay attention to the British actress thanks to her Oscar win for Best Supporting Actress, “Michael Clayton” is an unforgettable showcase for the raw nerve that only Swinton seems capable of tapping into with such exhaustive and frantic energy. The actress plays Karen Crowder, the chief legal officer of the agricultural products conglomerate U-North. Ruthless and conniving — traits any general counsel would need in the cutthroat world of big business — Karen is also on what seems to be the verge of a nervous and mental breakdown, a condition that gets worse as the twists and turns of the film’s plot threaten to derail U-North entirely. Exposing her unhinged side with control and calculation, Swinton is a manic delight, at times bitingly funny and at others frighteningly distressed. You’ll never look at sweat stains the same way again.
Again showcasing her wildly impressive range, Tilda Swinton takes a less-debonair-than-usual role in “Julia,” playing the titular struggling alcoholic who is hired by a fellow A.A. member to spirit her son away from his overbearing grandfather. Julia is a mess, already teetering on the brink of a breakdown, when she is driven to a complicated criminal act she may not be able to handle. When the at-first simple kidnapping becomes more and more complicated, Julia struggles to get the money she needs while also making sure the boy is safe, and making sure she makes it out alive. Swinton is strung-out and manic as a woman driven to desperate measures, but she still manages to imbue Julia with a subtle maternal instinct that gives what could be a straight crime story a very human edge.
“I Am Love” (2009)
For her role as Emma Recchi in “I Am Love,” Tilda Swinton managed what only Tilda Swinton could and learned to speak fluent Italian with a Russian accent. In the film, Emma is the Russian wife of a wealthy Italian aristocrat who is taking over his family’s business. When she begins an affair with a young chef, Emma must consider how this will affect the other relationships in her life, as well as the very structure of her family. Swinton’s performance is more than just a neat language trick; she manages the romance and duty of Emma’s situation with striking precision. As Emma, Swinton is sensual, vulnerable, passionate, and if a single word must be chosen, she is simply sublime.
“We Need to Talk About Kevin” (2011)
Hyperbole can be a nasty thing, but Swinton’s turn in Lynne Ramsay’s terrifying psychological drama is truly one of the most rattling and impressive performances of the past decade. The story of a mother’s emotional trauma in the years leading up to and after her son commits an unthinkable tragedy, Ramsay puts the film’s entire emotional reckoning on Swinton’s shoulders, and it’s a burden she carries in shattering fashion. The film is told in impressionistic scenes that blend the past and the present, but Swinton’s control over her character’s emotions in each timeline keeps the film’s disorienting narrative on its axis. Whether she’s navigating the unescapable lows of post-partum depression or expressing the horror of being attacked long after her son has been put in jail, Swinton runs the gamut of emotions. The words “tour-de-force” have never been more appropriate.
“Only Lovers Left Alive” (2013)
Tilda Swinton is even more pale and ghostly than usual in “Only Lovers Left Alive,” Jim Jarmusch’s vampire love story. Swinton plays Eve against Tom Hiddleston’s Adam, two immortal vampires who have been married for centuries but are living separate lives. The pair are reunited in the present day when Swinton flies from Tangier to be with her husband, who is depressed and suicidal, living the reclusive life of a tortured musician. Swinton is effortlessly cool and elegant as Ava, who is defined by her love of books and can read them cover to cover in only a few minutes. She evokes a deep wisdom appropriate for a centuries old bibliophile, while outwardly maintaining an icy cold and seemingly unflappable calm. In Swinton’s hands, Eve is a brilliant imagining of a modern day vampire.
“Snowpiercer” is an odd post-apocalypse science-fiction film. After a global disaster, the only remaining human life on earth is confined to the Snowpiercer, a train in constant motion that races around the globe. In order for the snowy wasteland train society to function, the lower classes must be confined to the back cars and the elites to the front. The person in charge of this task is the strange and fearsome Minister Mason, played by Tilda Swinton. When the script for “Snowpiercer” was first written, Minister Mason was written as a man. When the part was given to Swinton, she proceeded in typically badass fashion and told the writers to change none of the pronouns in the script. What results is performance tainted neither by the machismo of male villains or the weaponized sexuality of female villains, only a ruthless bureaucrat bent on upholding the status quo, however dystopic it may be.