Few actors of recent years have accumulated a body of work more diverse and more distinguished than that of Tilda Swinton. Emerging from the British avant-garde in the late ‘80s, her tentative flirtations with the mainstream have generally been followed up with bold and delightful excursions back into the weird (sort of like a hip band that comes perilously close to success but saves the day by calling themselves the Fuck Buttons). Drifting back and forth between character roles in establishment films like Michael Clayton and Snowpiercer and more “out-there” films like War Requiem and The Limits of Control, she may not always have the spotlight, but she is unfailingly interesting. As a point of entry into her work, here are five excellent Tilda Swinton movies currently streaming online.
Title: Orlando (1992)
Plot: In an auspicious beginning, our hero/ine Orlando (Tilda Swinton) is born into an aristocratic family, unmistakably a boy. When we meet him as a young man, Queen Elizabeth has just bestowed wealth and position on him, on the condition that he neither fade, wither, nor grow old. Nothing potentially sinister here! Orlando accepts the conditions and has just taken up his new post as British Ambassador to the Sublime Porte in Constantinople when, for reasons that aren’t clear (magic!) he awakes one morning to find himself transformed into a woman. Nothing else has changed (“It’s still me; just different sex,” she observes), but it’s going to make the next several centuries—because the Queen has rendered her immortal, remember—interesting, to say the very least.
Context: Tilda Swinton rose to fame in the late '80s and early '90s in the grotesque, punk-infused, distinctly English WTF films of Derek Jarman, which are not to every taste. It was Orlando, Sally Potter’s adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s best novel, that brought her more mainstream attention (well, mainstreamish, it’s still a very unusual movie). Placed in sequence with her Jarman films, Orlando can be seen as initiating a pattern that would inform Swinton’s career down to the present day: a dalliance with the mainstream, immediately counteracted by something far more radical (like indie films with no commercial viability, or Hungarian existential nightmares, as we will shortly see).
Where it’s streaming: Amazon.
Title: The Man from London (2007; we’re jumping ahead 15 years, not because Swinton wasn’t active in the intervening period, but because a lot of the material from that period isn’t streaming)
Plot: The penultimate film by Hungarian art-house god Béla Tarr finds him venturing into genre territory with this adaptation of Georges Simenon’s hardboiled L’homme de Londres. Our antihero is Maloin (Miroslav Krobot), whose job consists of guarding a railway terminus at an unnamed French port from atop a lonely tower. One night, he sees two men grappling over a suitcase, one of whom falls into the water, suitcase in hand, prompting the other man to flee. When Maloin fishes the suitcase out, it is—as is always the case in these matters—stuffed full of cash. This could change everything for the hopeless Maloin, his burnt-out wife (Swinton!), and his teenage daughter, who works at a butcher shop and is subject to the butcher’s repelling sexual advances. The only thing that could go wrong would be if—and this is highly unlikely—there were other people who also want the money. You know, like gangsters. Or the police.
Context: The Man from London is Tarr’s most cosmopolitan film, starring a cast of Hungarians, Czechs, and Britons (and virtually no French people, which is odd, given the setting), most of them dubbed because they don’t speak their characters’ languages (although there are apparently two versions, one in Hungarian—with Swinton dubbed—and the one I’ll be directing you to, in French and English, with Swinton possibly the only one not dubbed). Although some critics found the genre trappings and the displacement from Tarr’s usual stomping grounds—the Great Hungarian Plain—off-putting, The Man from London bears all the hallmarks of the highly stylized, crisply black-and-white, and not terribly cheerful worldview that have become his calling cards. It also marks Tilda Swinton’s first major venture outside the English language (some characters speak English, just not hers) and features her in a rich supporting character role which she fully inhabits.
Where it’s streaming: Amazon.
Title: Julia (2008)
Plot: The eponymous hero (Swinton) of this visceral nightmare doesn’t have a lot going for her. She’s an alcoholic who barely recovers from one binge before embarking on another, she’s unemployed as a result, and she’s burning through what’s left of her money. One day, Elena (Kate del Castillo), a friend she met at an Alcoholic Anonymous meeting, finds Julia passed out in the park and takes her home with her, where she makes her an interesting proposition: Elena is planning on kidnapping her own son from the child’s wealthy grandfather and ransoming him off; Elena will pay Julia $50,000 dollars for her assistance. Julia declines at first but, upon rethinking it, makes a very poor decision: She’ll kidnap the boy herself, cut Elena out of the picture, and keep the full ransom payment for herself. Nope, no holes in that plan…
Context: Every actor worth their salt needs at least one movie where they can just act the shit out of their role (think of Leo and the heavy-duty squinting he did in The Revenant). For Swinton, that movie is undoubtedly Julia, all two and a half hours of which are cranked up to a level of tension and desperation that few other actors could sustain at such a pitch. Although set in the US, it’s a French production, and the European film press loved it. The Americans, not so much, because, make no mistake, it is a hard movie to watch, what with its mixture of addiction, a child in peril, and a frank treatment of economic realities that in many ways anticipate the Great Recession that was to come a few months after its release. But if you’re a Swinton enthusiast, it really is a must-see, containing her most powerful, if not always most subtle, performance.
Where it’s streaming: Amazon, iTunes
Title: I am Love (2009)
Plot: Few countries do aristocratic depravity quite as well as the country that brought us La Dolce Vita, a truth borne out by this superb upper-class Italian adultery drama. Milanese textile magnate Tancredi Recchi would seem to have it all: luxury, power, and the love of his Russian wife, Emma (Swinton). But when Emma embarks on an ill-advised affair with Antonio (a gourmet chef who will furnish much of the food porn that pervades this shimmering, candy-colored movie), she sets in motion a series of revelations which will threaten to tear apart the House of Recchi.
Context: Now, while we were not certain if Tilda Swinton was speaking French in The Man from London, we can say with confidence that she is speaking both Italian and Russian in I am Love (and this despite the Italian film industry’s long history of importing actors who don’t speak a word of Italian and just dubbing their dialogue later). Interestingly enough, this would be neither the first nor last film that Italian director Luca Guadagnino would make with Tilda Swinton, having first worked with her on The Protagonists (1999) and, more recently, on A Bigger Splash (2015); however, both these films are largely in English. I am Love represents a continuation of Swinton’s forays outside the world of English-language film that was initiated by The Man from London and will possibly continue with her next project with Guadagnino, a much buzzed about remake of Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977).
Where it’s streaming: Netflix, Amazon.
Title: Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)
Plot: In vaguely post-apocalyptic Detroit (but it’s a Jim Jarmusch movie, so they all kind of look like that), vampire rock musician Adam (Tom Hiddleston) tries to strike a balance between visits to the blood bank (where he’s got a guy) and recording music (which he’s too hip to release). It’s getting hard to be a vampire (HIV has made it far more dangerous), but when on-again-off-again lover and fellow vampire Eve (Tilda Swinton) leaves Tangier to join him, they experience a brief respite from their travails (because being immortal and living in luxury without any visible means of support really takes it out of you), but alas, Eve’s troublesome younger sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) is in hot pursuit and, as she became immortal in her late teens, she comes burdened with a degree of late-adolescent sociopathic narcissism that threatens to throw Adam and Eve’s (har har) idyll into chaos.
Context: Jim Jarmusch’s films have frequently depicted hip characters doing… not much of anything, and they don’t come much hipper than Tilda Swinton, whose globe-trotting, hyperliterate vampire (she’s friends with Christopher Marlowe, who apparently survived the whole “stabbed-in-the-eye” business because, get this, he’s also a vampire) frequently steals the scene from Tom Hiddleston and his moody rock genius shtick. Now, fair warning, if 30-plus years into his career, you have not been won over by Jarmusch’s low-key, atmospheric style of filmmaking, Only Lovers Left Alive probably won’t make a convert of you. But if this is your thing, then this is probably Jarmusch’s strongest outing since the Johnny Depp-starring acid western Dead Man came out 20 years ago.
Where it’s streaming: Amazon.