Retrospective: The Many Faces of Tilda Swinton

By Joan Amenn

There are few experiences more enjoyable when seeing a film then only slowly recognizing the actor on screen is someone you are a fan of but who has used their skills to transform themselves totally into the character they are playing. In our age of CGI, this skill can seem like a lost art even though it was always augmented by makeup and lighting throughout the history of film and theater, for that matter. However, there are a few actors who have distinguished themselves as true chameleons but these have mostly been men, with few exceptions. Tilda Swinton is one of those glorious exceptions, arguably second only to Meryl Streep in consistently taking herself apart and reconstructing herself on-screen to our continued amazement. Below is a brief retrospective of some of her key performances through the years:

Please note:  For a review of “The Souvenir” (2019), featuring Tilda Swinton and starring her daughter Honor Swinton Byrne, keep reading further here at In Their Own League.

“Snowpiercer” (2013)

Swinton has worked in both large budget productions and independent films with the same seemingly effortless ability to recreate herself. This film is in the former category but she tears our attention away from all the special effects with her horrifying performance as a compassionless, mid-level technocrat who knows full well that the apocalypse has given her a power over others she would never possess otherwise. Even without the prosthetic teeth and thick glasses, Swinton has the audience cowering before the memories of every elementary school principal, every domineering gym teacher, every retail manager who has ever made our lives difficult simply because they knew they could.

tilda snow

“Only Lovers Left Alive” (2013)

A small budget and no special effects worth mentioning except an occasional display of fangs that may be vampiric do not in any way limit Swinton’s strangely romantic performance as Eve, an ageless being with a taste for old books and exotic travel. She is the kind of friend and empathic lover anyone would want to have, alive or undead but her body language shows more than her words how strong her will to survive is. Her scenes with the late John Hurt as her friend Christopher Marlowe (yes, that Marlowe you might have heard about in high school English class) are more moving than those with her lover Adam played by Tom Hiddleston. It should be noted that Swinton recreated this role recently for an episode of the television series, “What We Do In the Shadows” (2019, FX) which is worth seeing for all fans of horror, comedy or both.

tilda vamp

“The Grand Budapest Hotel” (2014)

With elegance and charm worthy of another time and place, Swinton embodies the grand old lady whose tender affections for the hotel’s concierge set the film’s story in motion. Aging makeup and a ridiculously large wig cannot mask the inner beauty that Swinton’s Madame D. radiates in the presence of her friend and occasional lover, Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). We can picture Swinton’s Madame as the type of woman who does not discuss her age but quietly arranges for her comfortable orthopedic shoes to be nearby after dancing all night in high heels. Although her role is small, she conveys herself in a few scenes as a reflection of the hotel referenced in the film’s title.

“Michael Clayton” (2007)

Swinton won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for this film and deservedly so. Sound and dialog could be stripped away from each scene she is in and the audience would still feel her desperation to cling to her job as a corporate counsel whatever the price like a punch to the stomach. We first see her barely keeping in check a complete emotional unraveling while frantically blotting an enormous underarm sweat stain in the ladies’ room of a corporate office. This silently sets the tone of all her consequent actions in the film and she masterfully never lets her character become too unlikeable or too unrelatable despite her inevitable spiraling out of control.

tilda michael

“Orlando” (1992)

My personal favorite and of course, the film that brought Swinton her first acclaim. If you know it only by reputation, you are in for a great treat. For five years, director Sally Potter and Swinton plotted and planned this labor of love and every frame is worth their effort. If anything, it is more relevant now than ever and Swinton is as much a fashion icon as she is here in all her ruffled glory.  Without giving anything away I will just note my favorite scene with one word: labyrinth.


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