An Appreciation of Tilda Swinton


Tilda Swinton as Katie Cox in In Burn After Reading (2008)
Focus Features / Universal Pictures

The movie world has always had its extremists, the practitioners who, while others breeze through their careers reaping the rewards of stardom, will sweat and toil and do strange things in the name of cinema. Stanley Kubrick amassed an actual library of books on Napoleon for a film he was never destined to make. Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski wrestled an actual steamship over an actual Amazonian hill, for Fitzcarraldo, rather than replicate the scene on a stage set. Daniel Day-Lewis broke ribs, and skinned animals in the wild, to satisfy his method.

Unsurprisingly, it’s usually men who, to paraphrase Herzog, feel compelled “do battle” on cinema’s front lines. But there are exceptions, a notable one being the English actress Tilda Swinton. In 1995, for instance, she spent a week in a glass case at London’s Serpentine Gallery, as a live art tribute to the director Derek Jarman. Last year, she decided to pull a 37-ton cinema-lorry around the Scottish Highlands, in order to screen films – including a documentary about the making of Fitzcarraldo —— in towns bereft of movie theatres.

These feats may not match Kinski’s steamship-wrestling (it turns out the lorry was driven more than it was pulled). But, unlike those mentioned above, who fight for the cause like soldiers, or suffer like martyrs, Swinton’s exertions seem to derive from a sense of fun and an overwhelming joy in her profession.

The daughter of a British major-general, Swinton has described herself as a film geek who never expected to end up in front of a camera: her place was on this side of the screen, in the dark, with the rest of us. Her success as an actor has allowed her to fulfil all manner of cinephile dreams.

“I choose film-makers and not parts,” she once said —— and her choices have been astute: Jarman, Sally Potter, Spike Jonze, Jim Jarmusch, Bela Tarr, the Coen brothers and David Fincher, to name but a few.

Since 2000, when she did The Beach for Danny Boyle, she has skipped from Lilliputian arthouse productions (Tarr’s The Man From London, Erick Zonca’s Julia) to Hollywood Brobdingnags (the Narnia series, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). A supporting role in Michael Clayton, as an icy, fragile general counsel, won her an Oscar.

Yet you get a sense that the enrichment she seeks from her work is more artistic than financial or egotistical, and that she prefers to spread cinematic wealth rather than hoard it. In 2008, the year before her lorry-pulling exercise, she converted a Scottish bingo hall into a movie theatre to host a film festival, the Ballerina Ballroom Cinema Of Dreams. She heads a foundation that gives classic films to children when they reach the age of 8½.

Who else but Swinton could have played the lead in the film version of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, about an androgynous young nobleman who evolves, seamlessly, into womanhood? Her striking red hair and elfin features (almost always referred to by journalists as “androgynous”) made her perfect for the part, and later attracted the attentions of Dutch designers Viktor & Rolf, who put her on the catwalk at one of their shows and turned all the other models into Tilda clones. And Ryan McGinley, who recently had her running through forests and climbing Scottish ruins in a little black dress, as part of a campaign for Pringle.

You may think of her as impeccably British, but her latest role required her to speak Italian throughout with a Russian accent —— no small feat when you consider how hopeless the Brits are with foreign languages.

She plays the Russian wife of a wealthy Milanese industrialist in the wonderful Italian family epic I Am Love. The film contains a love scene, an extraordinary one, in which Swinton’s Emma Recchi delights in the sensual world outside the confines of Milan —— not just in physical pleasure but also in the sights and sounds of nature surrounding her. It’s stunningly shot and scored —— a lavish cinematic feast for the viewer. For Swinton, it’s one more ululation in the song of joy that is her life in cinema.