Tilda Swinton has one of cinema’s most recognisable faces, appearing in countless films both mainstream and experimental alike. Her on-screen presence is always distinctive and striking, often exploring characters without a rigid gender identity. In fact, her role as Orlando in Sally Potter’s film of the same name, based on Virginia Woolf’s novel about a nobleman that wakes up one day to find he is a woman, was arguably Swinton’s breakout role. The actress embodied both the male and female parts of the film effortlessly, which was aided by her lifelong interest in androgyny.
Swinton’s eight collaborations with experimental director Derek Jarman, whose films largely explored homosexuality, gender identity, and radicalism, made them the perfect pair. Jarman cast Swinton in her first-ever film role in his 1986 historical drama Caravaggio. Clearly impressed with the actress, he subsequently cast her in more of his films, such as The Last of England, a commentary on Thatcher’s England, and War Requiem opposite Laurence Olivier.
Her versatility has allowed her to play a multitude of roles, such as the evil White Witch in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, perhaps the film’s most unsettling character. In the 2005 fantasy horror Constantine, Swinton portrays the typically male angel Gabriel with an androgynous look, however in the Coen Brother’s dark-comedy Burn After Reading the actress took on a more feminine role, wearing pearls and power suits, also proving her knack for comedic roles.
As well as her penchant for Jarman, who sadly died in 1994, Swinton has a select few directors that she keeps coming back to working with. She has been in multiple Jim Jarmusch films, such as Only Lovers Left Alive, a comedy about the relationship between two vampires, with Swinton playing one of the blood-suckers alongside Tom Hiddleston. She has also been cast in a few Wes Anderson pictures, including Moonrise Kingdom and the director’s most recent effort The French Dispatch. In 2016 she also joined the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Ancient One, portraying the role in both Doctor Strange and Avengers: Endgame.
It is pretty clear that Swinton has a vast range of filmic influences that has led her to take on such diverse roles. However, in Cindy Pearlman’s book You Gotta See This: More Than 100 of Hollywood’s Best Reveal and Discuss Their Favorite Films Swinton revealed her favourite film of all time, which even inspired her role as the White Witch in Narnia. She said: “Oh, there are millions of favourites of all time. Off the top of my head, I’d say A Matter of Life and Death.” Her love of the film stems from the fact that it “creates a magical world” and it explores “the fantasy of heaven in a man’s mind.”
A Matter of Life and Death was released in 1946, and is a romantic fantasy tale set in World War One England. The film was directed, written, and produced by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and has been widely considered one of the best British films of all time. Starring David Niven, Roger Livesey, and Raymond Massey, the film follows a man (Niven) who suffers a parachuting accident, however, a mistake in heaven means that he has to argue for his life in front of a divine court.
A Matter of Life and Death uses revolutionary special effects to depict a stairway that links heaven and earth, truly a breath-taking piece of cinema whose experimental nature has clearly influenced the films that Swinton has starred in over her career.
Praising the director Michael Powell, Swinton explained that he managed to change her mind on her opinion of Batman. After watching it on a plane, she explained to him that she wasn’t a fan. However, he said, “you’re wrong, it’s a really good film.” He explained to the actress that Batman “creates its own world and any film that does that is a good film.”