By Daniel Reif
Tilda Swinton is no stranger of note, lately.
The veteran actress has collected a packed 2016 of roles. We’ve seen her as an engrossing annoyance in the Coens’ otherwise underwhelming 50’s studio send-up, Hail Caesar; a brash, serenely sexy rock star in A Bigger Splash; and less than fortunate: a new social villain to comic pop culture by her casting as “The Ancient One” in Marvel’s final release of the year, Doctor Strange (closing its theater run).
Originally an East Asian monk in the Strange comics, the idea of the doctor’s first mentor of mystic power brought to life, has plagued the Benedict Cumberbatch-lead production from start; forced to decide between revisionist ethnic casting or outdated imaging of Asian identity in American film (the robed guru, swift hand, etc).
Yes, empathy is limited for the particular choice of a white, European actress, and social media has understandably rung in a day with Swinton’s newest role, but I love this artist of movies.
This a jewel of global cinema, and allow me a moment to give her life’s work a listed justice in a moment of noted punishment. Tempered to jarring, broken to beautiful, Jarman to Jarmusch; Swinton has built a commanding share of characters for three decades of film-goers against the cameras of master auteurs. Here are 5 special flicks (spanning the early to the recent), where Tilda Swinton’s command matches her world in principal fashion.
EDWARD ii (1991)
It should be no surprise the London-born performer of striking genes started her prolific career in modeling. Later famed as a “fashion muse”, the gorgeous Brit set stage for a journey of eye-popping appearances on film, by first honing her gifted sharp jaw and awe-inspiring face in pose.
You must credit radical, UK film artiste, Derek Jarman, for discovering her destiny for cinema. Most of Tilda Swinton’s first years into the medium came under the championing hand of the ultra-expressive, progressive, fringe filmmaker. Edward ii is one of the final of their eight works together: a postmodern historical tragedy of remarkable heart; wholly poetic and sorrowful.
Based on the play by Christopher Marlowe, the film is rare love story exploring the usually unsung history of relations between pre-modern, European Kings and their male companions. Twisted to the bold delights of its director, the setting is an indistinct assemblage of modern and medieval sets and clothing; dated as a present, “1991”.
Noble romantic, “King Edward the 2nd” (Steven Waddington), resides over a nervous “Realm” of clergy-influenced traditionalists suspect of his infatuation for the eclectic, “Piers Gaveston” (Andrew Tiernan). An unbroken love leads distaste into hate and severe consequence by name of blasphemy.
Swinton is the tormented, lonely queen-to-be “Isabella”. Pushed to royal sidelines, her Lordship’s attention for a man breathes maliciousness into her soul. She once bellows, “He claps his cheek, and hangs about his neck, and whispers in his ears. When I come, he frowns.” Bluntly following, “Is it not queer, thou must he bewitched!”
Conquering passion enthralls Isabella to violently tear apart a forbidden union, but with it, a revolting colony of disenfranchised men and women.
Evil aside, Swinton is a centerpiece beauty in a grim glamor piece. Director of Photography, Ian Wilson, drapes the divided Realm in black shadows. Candle glows soften the setting for future Oscar legend, Sandy Powell, to color Jarman’s nobles with dazzling royal gowns (Isabella especially), his authoritarians in 20th century militia, and his rebels in slick suits and penetrating punk rock outfits. The detail is delectable.
Two more joint outings with Swinton, and only three years after the completion of Edward ii, Jarman tragically passed away at a relatively early age. His legacy may forever orbit to this symbolic cry for acceptance from a passionate voice against the ever oppressive, “status quo”, but his departure should not overshadow a moving expression of film (a film which won Swinton the Volci Cup for Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival).
“Come death. And with thy fingers, close my eyes. Or if I live, let me forget myself.”- the closing words narrated by Waddington.
Directed by Derek Jarman; Screenplay by Jarman, Ken Butler, and Stephen McBride – 1991 – Working Title Films – 1hr 30m
For a small retrospect of an actress, Adaptation should have no room due to its small use of the actress. In the second, profoundly successful work of meta-filmmaking by Charlie Kaufman (screenwriter) and Spike Jonze (director)- following 1999’s Being John Malkovich– Swinton is but a role player in an engrossing self-mockery of the Hollywood process of screenwriting and the real world angst of the artists who process through it. She is a role player, but thanks to the empathetic nature of the crafty filmmakers, she is a fine example in light touch.
As “Valerie”, she is Hollywood; a gracefully spoken producer who entices the thousand-thoughts-a-minute, “Charlie Kaufman” (Nicholas Cage in a wonderful turn), to adapt “Susan Orlean’s” (Meryl Streep) The Orchid Thief into a movie; albeit, punched up with romantic plot convention.
Adaptation requires essayist duty to review one of the most ambitious comedy-dramas of our time (Chris Cooper!). Swinton simply provided me a great excuse to return to Kaufman/Jonze’s multi-layered, deeply personal, and startling outrageous view of the artist’s process. In so, I was still treated to a couple memorable scenes from an understated performer; one who seamlessly feeds the eccentric performances across her brunch table.
Acting is not always glamorous, but if an actor brings enough attention to their team, to their scene, they are never “small”.
Directed by Spike Jonze; Screenplay by Charlie Kaufman – 2002 – Columbia Pictures – 1hr 54m
MICHAEL CLAYTON (2007)
No matter the size of the cast; no matter its high-credential hitters; if Tilda Swinton contributes, her time has impact.
Her versatility within a distinct, big-eyed, emotive manner, draws us in any of her efforts, but appears most as a scene-stealer in ensembles. She may not always have the chance to carry a film, but this is no matter when her supporting efforts are as brilliant in all-star entries like Michael Clayton.
Acclaimed screenwriter, Tony Gilroy (Bourne Series), pens and directs this tense, and surprisingly meditative, “cover-up” thriller. George Clooney is the title man- a Manhattan, corporate law “fixer” and recovering gambling addict. A “janitor” to his firm’s board-room bosses (including a “dirty”, but careful Sydney Pollack), the experienced, skilled, and ultimately depressed Clayton, spends his days orchestrating quick measures to ease or erase legal slips by high-profile clientele. Clientele including (as he describes himself) “everywhere from shoplifting housewives to bent congressmen”. His job description is purposefully broad and classified. His unique authority uneases opponents and clients alike, and over the course of the film’s four-day span, will drive a rising corporate lawyer (Swinton) over the edge.
Tilda’s turn as the intelligent, ambitious, insecure, and severely desperate, “Karen Crowder”, earned her first (and only) Academy Award (Supporting Actress). It’s true testament to her talent that she, and only she, can take home the gold for a piece featuring career performances from George Clooney and Tom Wilkinson, and stirring support from the legendary Pollack.
Written and Directed by Tony Gilroy – 2007 – Warner Bros. Pictures – 1hr 59m
I AM LOVE (2009)
Swinton is known to return to a selection of filmmakers in her reel, but she particularly champions Italian writer/director, Luca Guadagnino, and has stepped into the producer’s chair in the three multilingual films they’ve made together.
I Am Love is a stand-out in her filmography alongside the good company of Guadagnino/Swinton’s latest, A Bigger Splash (2016). Check out the latter’s 4-hander also starring Ralph Fiennes, Dakota Johnson, and Mattias Schoenerts, about a scandalous vacay surrounding the tense relationship between a cool rock star (Swinton) and her bigger-than-life ex (Fiennes).
The 2009 former is my fave of the collab. Guadagnino has made a muse in a glowing star, not for the least in his supreme ability to catch that star’s famous reserved command.
Tilda Swinton excels as “Emma”- a secretly unfulfilled, married-into matriarch of a declining, rich Milano family around the year 2000. When “Edoardo Recchi Sr.” (the late, great Gabrielle Frizetti), grandfather and founder to his company’s factory-owned fortune, passes away, the candlelit perfection of the Recchi bourgeiouse begins to flame out. Emma, the family’s emotional backbone and longtime wife to the new fortune-owner,Tancredi, sinks into the shadows of destructive events. Little by little, her heart seems to both break in sorrow, and reconstruct in happiness, over consequential decisions. Swinton helms a bold performance about one housewife’s soapy (yet soulful) search for real love as the financial tides of her real life change… regardless of any actions good or bad.
This list will not well reflect the limited protagonists in Swinton’s canon. She is popular for her piece in ensemble puzzles. In I Am Love, catch the seldom chance at her power to be the puzzle.
Note: Count it; Swinton and Guadagnino will return in 2017 for the fourth time with a remake of the classic Italian horror film, Suspiria. High time to get up on their cinematic past!
Directed by Luca Guadagnino; Screenplay by Guadagnino and Barbara Alberti – 2009 – Mikado Film – 1hr 54m
ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE (2013)
Roberto Benigni. Gena Rowlands. Tom Waits. Bill Murray. Iggy Pop. You get it, these people are fuckin’ cool. They’re fuckin’ artists. They tell it how it is. And they have all given their singular coolness and idiosyncratic universal thought to the frame of filmmaker, Jim Jarmusch.
Add our star to Only Lovers Left Alive. Add her to Jarmusch’s curious and subsequent slick swing at the post-Twighlight, vamp pop culture. Star her opposite our day’s elite of mainstream male stars, Tom Hiddleston. Give them a a hip outfit, deadly chompers, gothic s-language, a crisp look through cold make-up, and you have a gods-among-humans pair with a gaze only bettered by a romance transcendent of all of the above.
Surrounded by an ancient underground society of vampires, “Adam” (Hiddleston) and “Eve” (Swinton) have spent centuries of love and hurtful stretches of separation. Present day, Adam is an obsessively private, 8-mile musician; heavily sought after by human idolizers, but undoubtably unavailable to us regular folk. Nights are spent solo recording, enlisting a physician’s (Jeffrey Wright, another fond collaborator of Jarmusch) begrudged assistance in purchasing medical blood for nourishment, dining in such blood, maintaining strict protection/secrecy of his residence, and pondering the long-awaited return of beloved Eve.
Eve is on another side of the world. Eternal marriage can have lengthy separations, but the adventurous romantic (and evenly intelligent) other is ready to return. Will they last? Just know you’re bound for their beautiful attempt to reconnect against a dark cloud of invasive characters and retro Americana as seen by Transylvania night crawlers.
Know you’re bound to discover Only Lovers Left Alive is the definitive movie to why Tilda Swinton is fuckin’ cool.
Written and Directed by Jim Jarmusch – 2014 (US Release) – Pandora Film – 2hr 3m
Funny thing, Swinton is pretty cool in Doctor Strange. The flawed Marvel flick is welcomed in wide arms by the power of her complicated heroine. “The Ancient One” is a meditative, Dalai Lama-being who is not safe from violence. He/her must hold strict command of their given power to protect the precious dimension of Earth. View any or all of the movies above, or the delightful collaborations with Wes Anderson, or the delightful collaborations with the Coens Brothers, or the rest of Jarman’s final works, and try to find anyone better to breathe such internal dichotomy!
However your feelings on the British artist, she has been no stranger of note, lately. If this list is inspired by anymore than the sum of its great films and performances, it is because I’m hyped for Swinton’s run to only continue.
December 20th, 2016