Best Tilda Swinton Performances, From ‘Narnia’ to ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’

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The enigmatic Tilda Swinton has a storied career, appearing in everything from small art-house films, like the ambitious Orlando, to Hollywood blockbusters The Chronicles of Narnia and Doctor Strange. Her versatility enables her excellence in deeply emotional dramas to bawdy comedies. Her unique, androgynous look and haunting eyes play to her advantage, lending a depth to the characters she plays that go beyond what’s written and into the heart of the role. With the release of George Miller’s Three Thousand Years of Longing, in which Swinton stars alongside Idris Elba, let’s take a look at some of the highlights of her career so far.

Eva in We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)
The haunting film about the mother of a school shooter flips between scenes in the present day and flashbacks to the time up to and including the shooting event itself. Swinton plays Eva, a former travel writer who now lives alone. The film starts with scenes that include the school shooting and we know Eva has a husband (John C. Reilly) and daughter (Ashley Gerasimovich) who are not present in the current-day scenes – so how did all this happen? Flashbacks tell the story of her son Kevin (Ezra Miller) and their relationship from his birth up to the immediate aftermath of the massacre. Miller is chilling, but Swinton is exceptional, bringing resignation, horror, and the turmoil of wondering how responsible she is for the monster Kevin becomes.

Orlando in Orlando (1992)
Orlando (Swinton), a 16th-century nobleman is blessed with eternal life by Queen Elizabeth I (Quentin Crisp), which allows him to go on a long philosophical journey across centuries. He experiences lives, loves, and the truth of one’s sexuality, first-hand as both man and woman. The film is a fascinating, layered look and commentary on life and the inability of the genders to understand one another despite not being all that different. Swinton’s androgyny is a strong asset to the character here, suspending any disbelief as she trips between genders (the casting of Crisp as the Queen is another gender flip of note).

Margaret Hall in The Deep End (2001)
Margaret’s (Swinton) son Beau (Jonathan Tucker), who is still in high school, is in a gay affair with an older man, Darby Reese (Josh Lucas), against her wishes. When Darby is accidentally killed while in the boathouse, a man blackmails Margaret, demanding money before releasing a tape of Beau and Darby having sex to the police, which would make Beau a primary murder suspect. It’s a role where Swinton effortlessly conveys the anxiousness, fear, and hopelessness of Margaret as she desperately tries to keep her son from being falsely incarcerated.

Ella in Young Adam (2003)
Joe (Ewan McGregor) is hired to work on a barge by Les (Peter Mullan) and his wife, Ella (Tilda Swinton). One day they find the body of a woman floating in the water and after a police investigation, a suspect is arrested. However, Joe definitely knows more about the dead woman than initially believed and more about his link to her is revealed as a sexual affair grows between Joe and Ella. The character of Ella carries a wide range of emotions, from passive and meek, to deeply guilt-ridden, to a joyful feeling of liberation and the painful low of losing it again. It’s a lot, but Swinton is up for the challenge.

Mason in Snowpiercer (2013)
The refreshingly original, post-apocalyptic Snowpiercer marks the English-language debut of Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho. The world has been sent into a new and vicious Ice Age, the unintended consequence of climate engineering. The last of humanity is aboard Snowpiercer, a perpetually-running train on a track that encircles the world. The train is divided into classes, from the elite in the front wagons to the lower class at the back of the train, where they are kept in check by Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton) and her merciless guards. But a revolution is coming, fronted by Gilliam (Sir John Hurt), Curtis (Chris Evans), and Edgar (Jamie Bell). Swinton relishes the opportunity to play the villainous Mason, stealing the scenes she is in with a twisted, black sense of humor.

Dianna in Trainwreck (2015)
In another scene-stealing minor role, Swinton is almost literally unrecognizable and flat-out hilarious as Dianna, the head of S’nuff magazine in the bawdy rom-com Trainwreck. Amy (Amy Schumer) is a writer for S’nuff and is tasked by Dianna to write a profile on Dr. Aaron Conners (Bill Hader), a sports doctor. The two end up having sex and Amy is taken aback when Conners confesses he’d like to continue seeing her. Why, you may ask, is Amy surprised? She is of a life-long belief that monogamy is impossible, getting drunk and stoned regularly as she pursues non-committal one-night stands. But, like most rom-coms, there’s a romantic happy ending in store. Swinton’s ruthless and cutthroat Dianna elevates the humor of the movie to a whole new level. From the outrageous headlines that she comes up with to her blatant indifference to Amy’s personal issues – Swinton nails every delivery.

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