Why Tilda Swinton is the Queen of the Indies

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Magnolia Pictures

Tilda Swinton in a scene from Julia.

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In this 1993 rethinking of the Virginia Woolf novel, Swinton plays Lord Orlando, a gallant 16th century nobleman whom Queen Elizabeth awards a stately manor, on one condition: "Do not fade, do not wither, do not grow old." Over his 400-year life, Orlando is a man, then a woman, then a bit of both — the two sexes evolved into one. Swinton had played men before: she was Mozart in a production of Pushkin's Mozart and Salieri, and in the play and film Man to Man she was a woman in Nazi Germany who assumes her dead husband's identity. Once, at an airport security checkpoint, she was herded into the men's line. With her short hair and lanky frame she can seem either gender, or the best of both — a super-androgyne with a sex appeal as complex as it is irresistible.

Reviewing Orlando in TIME, I lauded Swinton as "the pearl and perfection of any gender. Her poise and gravity, and the drama of her pale face under a crown of red hair, could mark her as this generation's russet Redgrave." Anyone who saw her made the comparison to an actress of similar height, looks, talent, famous family and attachment to left-wing causes — and who won an Oscar for another movie called Julia. Yet Vanessa Redgrave, behind her imposing facade, always suggested the shy vulnerability of a little girl lost, Swinton radiates a self-confidence that is commanding and commandeering; she could be any of her ancestors leading a charge on the battlefield.

And this is where her artistry trumps her persona. Though the regal, haughty, alpha-female roles might come more easily to her, Swinton is no less convincing in less pedigreed parts. She won Golden Globe and Independent Spirit awards for The Deep End, as a middle-class mother frantically trying to protect her son and the status quo. And she's scary-good as two underclass drabs: a fishwife having a torrid, ruinous affair with Ewan McGregor in Young Adam, or Bill Murray's ex-girlfriend, now trailer trash, in Jim Jarmusch's Broken Flowers. (She also has a few moments in Jarmusch's new film The Limits of Control.)

Julia is one of these sad, seemingly defective toys that manages to keep running after the battery's died. She swallows each drink as if it contains an acid that will cauterize what wounds her inside; or she could be embracing the habit because it brings on oblivion. Half the time she doesn't know the owner of the car or couch where she's been sleeping off her latest stupor. It might be her recovering-alcoholic friend Mitch (Saul Rubinek), who keeps trying to straighten her out. Or it might be her neighbor Elena (Kate del Castillo), who has hatched a goofy plan to retrieve her estranged son Tom (Aidan Gould) — if only Julia will, sort of, kidnap him.

Of all addictions, alcoholism is the ugliest to watch, in a friend or on the screen. Which is probably why Zonca lavishes the first third of this two hour 40 minute intimate epic on a detailing of the disease. Then things get even more painful as Julia abducts the eight-year-old boy, locks him in her car trunk, ties him up and dopes him. And then she gets a maternal instinct, crashes her car through a U.S.-Mexican border wall and fights off a bunch of tough Latinos — all without taking a drop of her favorite beverage. At times Julia seems to have been made by a sloppy drunk, lurching down new narrative alleys, forgetting where it started, heedless to where it's heading. Indeed, Zonca and Swinton have both called it "an alcoholic film."

But there are rewards for the patient or masochistic viewer. If you get into the movie's unsteady rhythms, the experience can be an enthralling ordeal. That's because Swinton gives Julia, and Julia, all her power and coherence. It's like so much of Swinton's work: a huge star performance in an ornery little film. When she meets directors with grand or weird or disturbing ideas, she does make their dreams come true. We expect no less of the queen of the indies.

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