• Tilda Swinton in 'A Bigger Splash' (SBS Movies)Source: SBS Movies
Tilda Swinton is inarguably one of the most talented actresses of her generation. Here's a look at her five greatest performances.
6 Apr 2016 - 1:53 PM  UPDATED 6 Apr 2016 - 1:53 PM

We at SBS Movies are hardly alone in believing Tilda Swinton to be one of the most gifted screen performers working in film, one of those rare actors who make you want to see everything she’s in.

When she’s in the cast, good films become very good and great ones become greater still. There’s little in her resume that could be dubbed “bad” – which speaks to the way she selects her roles - and even the flawed titles are interesting and hard to dismiss. It’s easy to see why she took them.

With her new movie A Bigger Splash released on March 24, and career landmarks Orlando and I Am Love available on SBS On Demand, this is an especially good time to delve into her consistently impressive body of work.

The UK actor’s avoidance of anything that might look like calculated careerist moves is one of the things that make her so valuable. One minute she’s winning a supporting actress Oscar as a dodgy executive in classy Hollywood thriller Michael Clayton; another time she’s a hipster vampire from Tangiers in Jim Jarmusch’s calculatedly cultish Only Lovers Left Alive or the frightfully grotesque dowager of Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Her roles follow no obvious pattern other than offering fascinating opportunities for her to explore the many different facets of being a woman (and in the case of Orlando, man). Like France’s Isabelle Huppert, she’s happy to go out on the edge, yet equally good playing at still-waters-run-deep.


A Bigger Splash

Swinton is an undeniable beauty, but an unconventional and androgynous one, and she consistently uses her distinctively pale, blue-eyed looks to her roles’ advantage. 

It’s almost certainly not coincidental that she took this juicy new role as an androgynous female rock star after playing opposite David Bowie in the 2013 video clip for the singer’s The Stars (Are Out Tonight).

This remake of 1969 French feature La Piscine, finds Swinton’s singer holidaying with her new beau (Belgian hunk-du-jour Matthias Schoenaerts) on a sun-soaked Sicilian island while rendered temporarily speechless from a throat operation. Blissful days around the pool take a more complicated turn with the arrival of her ex, a hyperactive record producer (played with hilariously wankerish glee by Ralph Fiennes) and his sex-siren of a putative daughter (Dakota Johnson proving her acting smarts after 50 Shades of Grey).

Though Swinton’s character does rasp out some dialogue during moments of heightened emotion, for much of the time she’s silent – a decision the actor made in agreement with the film’s Italian writer-director Luca Guadagnino, with whom she’d previously worked on I Am Love. “It was a moment in my life I really didn’t want to say anything,” she told The Guardian, “but I figured if it was possible for me to take part in this scenario, the one thing that came to mind was: I could come if I don’t have to speak.” Not many actors could make such a character work. Swinton nails it.



Sally Potter’s gender-rending 1992 Virginia Woolf adaptation is where Swinton first made a big splash, playing a man who turns into a woman. She’d already won attention from critics as a regular part of UK maverick Derek Jarman’s acting team, with lively supporting credits including Edward II and Wittgenstein, but Orlando was her breakthrough role. She dominates virtually every frame.

While strewn with the visual pleasures of brocaded coats and billowing frockage, the film is held aloft by Swinton’s finely judged sense of control. Her bemused tolerance of society’s absurdities and her class-bound privilege gives way to a delightful waspishness once she turns into a woman and finds a world pitted against her.
It was a sign that Swinton would continue to gravitate towards unconventional and challenging roles, all the better if bound up with implicitly queer, feminist or gender politics. Failing that, give her a big juicy bad girl role to sink her teeth into.

Watch The Movie Show original ★★★★ ½ review 



Talking of which, French filmmaker Erick Zonca’s foray into US storytelling after the much admired The Dreamlife of Angels gives Swinton the baddest bad-girl of her career in the title role as a bat-poop crazy, flagrantly unreliable LA alcoholic turned child-kidnapper, a walking disaster just waiting to happen.

The film was inspired by US indie godfather John Cassavetes’s Gloria, where Gena Rowlands protected a kid from the mob. Swinton’s Julia however is a way more unhinged and wildly unpredictable, though she does discover some basic maternal instincts in a second half set in crime-ridden Tijuana.

This is the kind of film that, as the saying goes, won’t appeal to everyone. That’s mainly because its goes out of the way to make the viewer uncomfortable. For more adventurous viewers though the film is a must, the actor way out on the edge in an entirely vanity-free and virtuoso performance as a careening human car wreck you just can’t tear your eyes from. In a sane world it would have won her an Academy Award.

Read review


Female Perversions

Susan Streitfeld’s feminist 1996 film is one of the less name-checked films in Swinton’s CV but it’s worth checking out for the actor’s compelling lead performance as an ambitious but nervous attorney. What it shows so well is how brilliantly Swinton uses physicality in her performances. Her dramatic screen acting tends to be as a physical as a silent comedian though (usually) without the gags. Look out, for instance, for the way she clatters awkwardly in high heels in this film, at constant danger of toppling over – a physical metaphor for her character’s emotional instability.

Swinton doesn’t really have the classic body of a dancer. She’s slender rather than thin, medium rather than flat chested, and her legs average rather than long. But she has something of a dancer’s sensibility and it is surprising to find she hasn’t received formal training at a dance academy or similar institution. It may or may not be significant that the filmmaker responsible for giving Swinton her first leading role in Orlando, Sally Potter, is a former dancer.


I Am Love

In Luca Guadagnino’s 2009 nod to the classic art films of Luchino Visconti (The Leopard, Death in Venice et al) Swinton incarnates the exact opposite of her Julia and Female Perversion characters. She plays a calm, forever smiling and exquisitely groomed mother of three in a wealthy Milan family of industrialists where the women know their place – arranging events at the home and keeping out of the family business. That is until she meets a handsome young chef befriended by her son and her long-suppressed passions boil to the surface. 

Watch the way she walks when the chef visits her villa for the first time – she glides, as if her shoes were cushioned by air-jets. Oh, and note that she speaks Italian (and if that isn’t impressive enough, note that it’s apparently accented in Russian to reflect her character’s origins!).

Why You Should Watch: I Am Love


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Luca Guadagnino on 'A Bigger Splash' (interview)
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Why You Should Watch: I Am Love
Sex, love, food, and money: Tilda Swinton’s Milanese melodrama has got the lot. It’s free to watch for almost a year at SBS On Demand.