David Thomson on rising star Tilda Swinton

Tilda Swinton is a film star now - and other film stars should beware, because she could blow the concept to smithereens

With Tilda Swinton, nothing should be ruled out. A few years ago, at the San Francisco film festival, she turned up to deliver the "State of Cinema" address in bright red, stiletto-heeled shoes (her tribute to Michael Powell, as well as a way of putting her over 6ft tall), and she offered an inspiring hymn to brave, new independent film that was more suggestive of a political meeting than a film festival. It was intensely purposeful, utterly idiosyncratic, and likely to add every male in the audience to the fight at the barricades. I could suddenly see Swinton as some immense spirit of Russia (or Narnia) who wows and woos John Reed in Reds for 20 minutes - and don't say part two of that long, hard slog (plus the flagging Warren Beatty) wouldn't have benefited from her wolfish energy and the great blaze of her pale face.

Matilda Swinton would have been 21 when Reds was made. That was the time when this daughter of military commanders was the best and most unforgettable girl in the Derek Jarman entourage. From the start, she went for the most difficult world she could find - performance art, and being an inspiration as well as cook and bottle-washer to Jarman's band of outsiders. That added fire to the smoky rumours that she might be homosexual, or bisexual, to which I would only add that she is simply but totally sexual with an eye and sympathy for anything that moves. She has certainly had her gay following and roles to please it (such as Orlando), but she has two beautiful children by the outstanding artist and playwright, John Byrne, as well as a lover or two, plus what looks like the amazed fealty of George Clooney.

As I said, nothing can be ruled out. Swinton might even be an actor one day - as opposed to an astonishing photographable energy. There is a difference. She acted in The Deep End, the one about the mother who will do anything to protect her son and her family solidity. But in Michael Clayton (for which she won an Oscar), and now Burn After Reading, for the Coen brothers, she drifts in and out of vision, does amazing and unexplained things and generally unbalances the two films' feeble grasp on reality.

I don't mind that: there are plenty of films, such as Reds, where the overall lack of focus and drive would be rescued for 20 minutes if Swinton was turned loose. She inherited from Jarman, I think, a feeling that life is short and opportunities are rare, so she can march into the middle of a picture, look around her with mounting contempt, and in her scathing look signal the plea: "What on earth are you doing - when you could be making a real movie?"

For instance, in Nairn (her home), with the industrious and inspired Mark Cousins, she has started a kind of sitting-on-sofas home movie festival that might end up being so unplanned and unfunded as to shame other film festivals. In San Francisco, she has made several flat-out experimental art films (for Lynn Hirshman-Leeson: Teknolust and Strange Culture), and she has been the subject of photographs (by my wife, Lucy Gray) that were projected on the side of City Hall. In Venice, I saw her face as high as a palazzo advertising a stunning video installation that may still be the best thing she has ever done. Added to which, she has plainly won the hearts and lenses of many of the world's most stupid fashion photographers.

The result of this, I think, is that Tilda Swinton has become one of the few "must see" performers in the film world. She is a floating event, coupled to which she is merry, smart, amiable and honest. She is a film star now (not that that status means much), and other film stars should beware because Swinton could blow the concept to smithereens. She is a terrorist more than an actor. She is also not much short of 50.

There are people in the world who think Swinton looks odd, unusual, disturbing, unmovielike. But for the rest of us, that is the point. I am sorry to see that her Lady Macbeth (for John Maybury, who cast her as barkeep Muriel Belcher in his Francis Bacon film, Love Is the Devil) seems to have fallen by the wayside.

Anything is possible. If I were Francis Bacon and dead, I'd find some way to come back just to paint Tilda. Go to Tate Britain now, to that great zoo of damaged faces and lives in his exhibition, and you can feel the mad beauty and the burning threat that are side by side in Tilda Swinton.


David Thomson

The GuardianTramp

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