Here is my meditation on Tilda Swinton in Michael Clayton for the Supporting Actress Blogathon 2007 at Stinkylulu.
I have been thinking about what it is I like so much about Tilda Swinton. What first came to mind is a production of the Oresteia I saw on tape that the National Theatre did in the 70s. This production was done with an attempt to replicate the experience of the original Greek productions, so the plays were done in masks. The most fascinating thing for me was that as I listened to the verse, and watched the actors bodies, the expression on the masks seemed to change. Now, I know the masks didn't actually move, but the seemed to morph according to what I felt the character was feeling. And it's that that I feel when I see Tilda. Her face is a mask in a classical sense. It seems blank, but not in any kind of vapid way; it's a mask of possibility. I'm never sure exactly if what I'm projecting is what is happening, and I am never less than riveted.
These gifts were apparent in the surpise of her performance in Narnia, but are especially present in the corporate cipher Karen Crowder that she plays to the hilt in Michael Clayton.
In the hands of a lesser actress, Crowder could have been a stock corporate villain. What sets her apart, though, is the focus and lack of vanity in Swinton's performance. One of the strengths of the performance is in the constant rehearsal that we see Karen performing. It's here we see her vulnerability, her need to please, and her calculation. But (besides the lack of vanity in Swinton showing actual flab and sweat--scandal!) it's the masklike quality that makes this performance above and beyond what it could have been. Does she believe what she is saying? Does she believe in herself? Is she scared? Lost? Over her head? Possibly all of them, but we aren't quite sure. Keeping us guessing makes her electric as a villian. We keep feeling for her because she may be truly a patsy. Or she may only be lustful for power. And it makes for fascinating viewing as she gets deeper and deeper into uncharted territory. The mask of her face keeps us guessing, so when she does flash with anger, terror, fear it's like watching a cat--we know she's going to pounce, but we don't know where or how. And this sets us up for what I think is the most thrilling moment in the film: when Karen realizes she is trapped, she starts to panic. And she actually starts to shake. In that moment, we see that she has gone further than she ever thought she was capable of, and is completely unprepared for the results. It's my favorite moment in the film, and one of my favorite in any film this year. She's bringing her specific gifts to a role making it more than written--one of my favorite tricks.
For Oscar watch, I can only hope she's nominated, if not win. The only other one that has surprised me as much is Emmanuelle Seigner, who blew me away in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, especially considering La Vie en Rose. Maybe I'll write a bit about her as well.
Meanwhile, viva Tilda.