The Grand Budapest Hotel. Only Lovers Left Alive. And now, Snowpiercer, Bong Joon-ho’s dystopia-on-a-train film that tore up the box office — and wowed critics — in limited release, before going national this past weekend. What these three movies have in common is Tilda Swinton, making her somewhat ubiquitous on the big screen in 2014. For years, she’s been one of cinema’s most fascinating figures, and her more mainstream efforts, from the Chronicles of Narnia series to her work with Wes Anderson, have made her a household name. But most of Swinton’s best performances never screened at the multiplex. If you’re looking to dig deeper into her filmography — and you really should be — here are ten great places to start.
Although she’s had longstanding collaborative relationships with some of cinema’s greatest minds, from Jim Jarmusch to Wes Anderson, Swinton’s most crucial partnership was also her first, with the radical queer filmmaker Derek Jarman (who died in 1994). She made her big-screen debut in his Caravaggio, playing Lena, one-third of a sordid and tragic love triangle involving the Baroque painter. It’s a relatively small role, but a striking one, setting the tone for a career defined by otherworldly beauty, magnetic strangeness, and outré sexuality.
Edward II (1991)
Swinton made seven more films with Derek Jarman after Caravaggio, and (like every movie he made) each is well worth seeing. But Edward II, a postmodern take on Christopher Marlowe’s play about the 14th-century king, may be her greatest achievement in Jarman’s filmography. As Stephen Holden of The New York Times observed, “In a strong cast, Tilda Swinton, who plays Edward’s Queen, Isabella, turns in the most memorable performance, that of a love-starved woman whose iceberg exterior conceals a consuming sexual hunger.”
Although it’s far more straightforward a narrative than most of her work, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando still presents one major challenge for the big screen: its protagonist is a nobleman in Elizabethan England who lives a life that spans centuries, and is suddenly transformed into a woman midway through it. Tilda Swinton may be the only (allegedly) human actor equipped to play the role of such a regal, mysterious androgyne, and her performance in this adaptation — also a breakthrough for director Sally Potter — became her signature.
Female Perversions (1996)
It certainly isn’t her best film; adapted from a scholarly volume by the same name, Female Perversions is a painfully dated mess of feminist and post-feminist ideas about women, power, and sexuality. But it’s still worth seeing purely as a showcase for Swinton’s range, and a study in how her subtlety can bring consistency to a script that’s all over the place. She owns every scene as a brilliant and intimidating young lawyer on the brink of becoming a judge, whose raft of erotic fixations and neuroses would make Richard von Krafft-Ebing sweat.
Possible Worlds (2000)
In Robert Lepage’s adaptation of the play by John Mighton, we meet George Barber (Tom McCamus), a man with a unique awareness that he’s living simultaneously in multiple parallel worlds. To make things more complicated, he’s just died. Swinton plays Joyce, a woman who exists in all of George’s realities, although she’s a substantially different person in each one. Even for an actor who’s fond of high-concept roles, this must have been a challenge — and by most accounts, it paid off. “Swinton shows that in the right movie she can be a devastatingly charismatic screen presence, and here gives beautifully calibrated, differentiated performances,” wrote Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian .
You’ll also find multiple Tildas (Tildi?) in Lynn Hershman-Leeson’s thrillingly odd sci-fi tale. Swinton plays a scientist who creates three Self Replicating Automatons in her own image and sends one of them, Ruby, out to seduce men and gather the sperm (yes, really) that the cyborgs need to survive. Teknolust was divisive upon its release, but if the intersection of feminism, cyberpunk, high camp, and a Swinton performance the Village Voice‘s Laura Sinagra called “a quiet tour de force” appeals to you, be sure to seek this one out.
Young Adam (2003)
If the above image of Swinton and Ewan McGregor hasn’t already sparked your interest, well, you and I don’t have much in common. But for the sake of those who still need convincing: David Mackenzie’s Young Adam is a murder mystery, a love triangle with Swinton at its center, and a set of interlocking character studies set largely on a barge traversing the Scottish canal system. In a rave review, Roger Ebert praised Swinton’s performance as having a “directness so forceful you want to look away.”
Broke, alcoholic, and rapidly running out of options, in Julia, Swinton’s titular heroine allows herself to be pulled into a dangerous kidnapping plot for the promise of a $50,000 payday. The film is director Erick Zonca’s tribute to John Cassavetes’ classic Gloria, and had critics praising Swinton’s “desperately avid performance” while offering less enthusiasm for the project as a whole. One particularly vivid review, from David Fear at Time Out New York, argues that “watching the actor broadly wallow in human ugliness before turning into a red-maned mama lion single-handedly redeems this exercise in semigratuitous grit. She doesn’t craft a performance so much as turn into Hurricane Tilda, obliterating everything in her path.”
I Am Love (2009)
Perhaps the single best entry in Tilda Swinton’s filmography (although you could certainly make an argument for both Orlando and the next item on this list), Luca Guadignino’s I Am Love also represents the kind of wholehearted collaboration for which she’s known: the director and his star, who also co-produced the movie, spent no fewer than 11 years developing it together. It’s fairly impossible to describe the film’s plot in a way that will do justice to Guadignino’s lush, psychologically rich filmmaking; suffice it to say that themes include family, secrets, and sensual awakenings of both the sexual and the culinary varieties. Born in Russia but seemingly refined by decades among the Italian bourgeoisie, Swinton’s character Emma undergoes a shocking transformation that is I Am Love‘s breathtaking centerpiece.
Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)
Like I Am Love, Only Lovers Left Alive is the result of an extensive collaboration between Swinton and the film’s director, Jim Jarmusch, who spent years securing funding for the project. The result is a Palme d’Or-nominated vampire movie like nothing else in the genre, the story of an ancient bloodsucker named Eve (Swinton) and her somewhat-less-ancient husband, Adam (Tom Hiddleston), a pair propelled through the centuries by their undying love for art, music, science, and, most of all, each other. As patient, slow, and clever as the lives of its characters, Only Lovers Left Alive is full of great music and visually pleasing shots of locations in both Detroit and Tangier. But it’s Swinton’s warmth in the role of Eve — Adam’s inspiration, savior, and ideal audience — that makes the whole thing melt together.