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She Who Dares: The Astonishing Work Of Tilda Swinton

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Believe it or not, in a pop culture filled with mindless reality shows and slick formula franchises, there are still a few players out there whose work offers a glimmer of hope that originality and intelligence can prevail.

Tilda Swinton is one such player.

It is heartening that at 50, her career is in red-hot mode. Her next film, We Need To Talk About Kevin just won top prize at the BFI London Film Festival. Director John Madden, the festival jury chair, stated he was "... simply bowled over... it's a sublime, uncompromising tale of the torment that can stand in the place of love."

The word "uncompromising" sounds like the perfect word to describe Tilda Swinton. She is drawn almost exclusively to smart, challenging, edgy projects, and she is utterly fearless in the roles she chooses.

In "Kevin" (which opens December 9th) she plays a mother coming to grips with the fact that her son has perpetrated a Columbine-type massacre at his school. This is the just the type of intense portrayal Swinton does best.

Even if the harrowing nature of "Kevin" puts off some viewers, one thing is certain: those who value superb acting will likely see it, because it stars Tilda Swinton.

Striking rather than beautiful, Swinton is transfixing on-screen. Watching her is like riding an express train into the inner life of her (usually) high-strung, vulnerable characters -- a decidedly unsettling but fascinating place to be.

Swinton, who'd eventually rebel against most anything safe and conventional, was born into a life of sheltered privilege. Descended from one of Scotland's oldest families, she attended Cambridge, then did a stint with the prestigious Royal Shakespeare Company, where she felt stifled and left after one year. Drawn to the avant-garde, she wanted to experiment, to pursue a more daring and provocative path as an artist.

Though trained in the theatre, Swinton was increasingly drawn to film, and a fateful meeting with British director Derek Jarman in the mid-eighties proved pivotal. She would maintain a close working relationship with him, appearing in seven of his productions, until Jarman succumbed to AIDS in 1994.

Still, it was the film Orlando (1992), her gender-bending collaboration with writer/director Sally Potter, that launched her internationally. She has barely looked back since.

True, Swinton's work is not for everyone, certainly not those addicted to "light entertainment." But if you like your movies dark and deep, this is one amazing actress who always delivers the goods, and never sells out.

Orlando (1992)- Young Orlando (Swinton) is an English nobleman living an idle life in the early 1600s. After a visit from Queen Elizabeth (Quentin Crisp) leaves him unexpectedly immortal, his life stretches out endlessly before him, allowing for adventures far beyond the reach of imagination. After stints as a poet, ambassador and erstwhile lover of Russian royalty, he switches genders and continues journeying, but from a decidedly feminine perspective. His/her lifelong quest is to discover the purest, most powerful love; that search spans centuries and continents in this adaptation of Virginia Woolf's famous novel. Swinton's breakthrough turn as the androgynous Orlando is reason enough to see this daringly original film. Sally Potter's adaptation is playful, intelligent and witty -- she takes us through the centuries, but we're never lost, and she always makes time for humorous asides. Academy Award-nominated for its lush production design and costumes, this swooning romance manages to engage the mind as well as the eye. Indeed, Orlando is what all literary adaptations should aspire to be.

The War Zone
(1999)- After reluctantly relocating from London to the harsh coastline of Devon with his family, isolated, sexually frustrated teenager Tom (Freddie Cunliffe) is forced to live in cramped quarters with his sister Jessie (Lara Belmont), pregnant mother (Swinton), and overbearing Dad (Ray Winstone), the only family member who seems happy with their move. Then, one afternoon, the peeping Tom makes a disturbing discovery about his father that threatens to destroy the entire clan. The first-time directorial effort of British actor Tim Roth ("Reservoir Dogs," "Pulp Fiction"), "War Zone" is a bleak, harrowing tale of incest and domestic disturbance, adapted by Alexander Stuart from his own novel. To his credit, Roth not only assembles an excellent cast headed by future arthouse celebs Winstone and Swinton, he directs with a gloomy, even claustrophobic flair that recalls vintage Bergman. Though brutal and unsparing in its depiction of family dysfunction, The War Zone never fails to captivate.

The Deep End
(2001)- When the body of her 17-year-old son's predatory former gay lover washes up on their lakefront property one morning, Margaret Hall (Swinton) does what any desperate mother might do: she gets rid of the corpse. Not long after, small time hood Alek Spera (Goran Visnjic) pops up on her doorstep, with an incriminating videotape and an impossible monetary demand. Ensuing negotiations make Alek sympathetic to Margaret's impossible position, but Alek's psychopathic boss (Raymond Barry) is less understanding. In this vivid nail-biter, a remake of Max Ophuls's "The Reckless Moment," Swinton is flawless as a woman who must carry on with the mundane details of her life while bearing a life-threatening burden alone. Visnjic excels as the conflicted middle-man, but Barry is most memorable as an impatient, cold-blooded gangster. Even with momentary graphic sex and some violence, the film's dramatic tension derives wholly from Swinton's character, and our appreciation of one mother's lonely, desperate predicament. Taut and suspenseful, "The Deep End" is not to be missed.

Adaptation (2002)- Sad-sack, chronically self-doubting Hollywood screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) is hired to script "The Orchid Thief", written by New Yorker scribe Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep). Obsessed with the foxy author, and struggling with how to faithfully adapt the tale of Orleans's intriguing friendship with a renegade rare-flower expert John Laroche (Chris Cooper), Kaufman becomes increasingly stressed, unhinged, and of course, innovative in his approach. Meanwhile, studio producer Valerie Thomas (Swinton) is breathing down his neck. This brilliant meta-narrative and hilarious spoof of Hollywood's formulaic approach to telling stories, Adaptation is the brainchild of Jonze and real-life writer Kaufman, who had teamed earlier on Being John Malkovich. In fact, Kaufman really was hired to adapt the Orlean book, and took a chance writing a zany, highly inventive script about his neurotic inability to wedge it into a conventional plot structure. He also invented a fictitious alter ego, twin brother Donald, who despite being a noodle-brained philistine, knows how to write a crack blockbuster. Cage's sweaty, uncomfortable turn in both roles is pure angst-filled genius, and pros Streep, Swinton and Cooper (who nabbed an Oscar) match his inspired playing throughout.

Michael Clayton (2007)- New York City lawyer Michael Clayton (George Clooney) is a "fixer" for a big firm, cleaning up the dirty messes his high-paying clients leave behind, but lately he's been feeling burned out and disillusioned. Things come to a head for Clayton when his guilt-ridden friend, ace lawyer Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), decides to blow the whistle on a corporate client's massive wrongdoing, thereby threatening his career, his sanity, even his life. One of the thorniest and most celebrated legal thrillers in years, "Clayton" marks the directorial debut of "Bourne" trilogy screenwriter Tony Gilroy, whose film is distinguished by whip-smart dialogue, meticulous pacing, and plenty of riveting tension. A-lister Clooney adopts a quieter, less showy pose as a troubled lawyer torn between his loyalty to firm honcho Sydney Pollack and his pal Wilkinson, who gives an astounding performance as an erratic, manic-depressive lawyer at the breaking point. As you'd expect, the no-nonsense Swinton is superb as the offending Client's top lawyer (she won an Oscar for this). Gilroy handles all the intrigue -- a cover-up, then a murder--with cold efficiency, but catharsis does arrive in the final scene.

Julia (2008)- Julia (Swinton) is an out-of-control alcoholic whose manipulative behavior has finally tested the patience of her boss, who fires her, and a close friend, Mitch (Saul Rubinek), who doles out some tough love. At an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting (which, of course, she scorns), Julia meets broken, obviously unhinged Elena (Kate del Castillo), who pleads with her to kidnap her estranged young son from her wealthy industrialist father. Julia, desperate for money, agrees, but has no intention of carrying through with the plan for anyone's benefit but her own. Swinton turns in another tour de force performance in Erick Zonca's cross-border thriller, playing a conniving, selfish drunk who resorts to crime and other extreme measures when she loses her job. The kidnapping goes awry, of course, but that's just the beginning of Julia's trek into the lower depths with a scared kid (Aidan Gould) who quickly figures out she's no friend. Zonca keeps the action on full throttle, all the way south to Mexico, but there's no question this is Swinton's film. A great crime movie, Julia also provides a fitting showcase for one gifted actress.

I Am Love (2009)- Love takes us into the cosseted world of the stylish and beautiful Recchi family, who own highly successful textile mills in Milan. Originally from Russia, over the years matriarch Emma (Swinton) has integrated herself seamlessly into this Italian dynasty. Fissures appear in their well-ordered, well-appointed lives when succession plans are announced at the family company, and Emma's beloved son Edo (Flavio Parenti) is elevated to share power with his father. Later, when Edo introduces Emma to his friend Antonio (Eduardo Gabriellini), a gifted chef, an unlikely, all-consuming romance develops, threatening to tear the whole family apart. This visually sumptuous film stimulates all the senses as its tale of forbidden romance and simmering family dysfunction unfolds. Once again, the virtuosic Swinton pulls off a demanding central role, speaking both Russian and Italian; her passion and sense of liberation as she eyes her young lover literally jumps off the screen at you. That said, if there ever was a director's picture, this is it. Luca Guadagnino's nimble camerawork brings a mesmerizing immediacy to the proceedings, making these telegenic actors look even more stunning, and the production design even more breathtaking. If not an outright masterpiece, Love is certainly close to it.

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