Who are our top actors and actresses? In December Screen Comment will be publishing our Best-Of lists (films and actors) and Tilda Swinton, who plays Julia Harris in Erick Zonka’s ‘Julia’ will appear prominently at the top. I just finished watching Julia and was reminded, once again, why Swinton is one of my favorite actors. She plays an alcoholic who loses her job and is forced into AA meetings by a on-again, off-again suitor, himself a recovering alcoholic.
But director Zonka keeps a tight grip on his film and thankfully the chaotic, and at times thrilling story that follows never veers off into the flatlands of predictability and fatalism. One of the things that it shows us is that alcoholics–somebody help them–can be functional and sometimes even thrive. In fact, Swinton, a fiercely talented Scott/Australian actor who once inspired an entire fashion collection (and she does look like a model) seems to always have a handle on things, even when they go fantastically awry. At one of the AA meetings, she meets Elena (Kate del Castillo), a true crazy (one of the scary types) who confides in Julia a plan to kidnap the son that was taken away from her because of her addiction. And there’s money, apparently. Lots of it.
The mayhem that follows takes us from Julia’s quaint Los Angeles neighborhood all the way to Tijuana, in a hide-and-seek game that involves kidnappers nabbing other kidnappers, a fat taxi driver who ‘only’ delivers messages and rides in the desert looking for warm bodies. You couldn’t find a better movie. Filmmaking at its best. It’s long (well over two hours) but you won’t see the time go. Swinton is the only recognizable actor and her performance is, well, it’s hard to find the words.
Since seeing ‘Julia’ I have been wondering, in fact, about what it’s like to play an alcoholic actor. Interestingly enough, Swinton never drinks. She has said that one drink puts her to sleep. This almost sounds untrue–that’s how good her performance is. But it’s not just good. Like Sean Penn, Swinton does not just scratch at the character’s surface.
She can extract the subtlest complexities out of them. It’s rare, to see so much control exterted by an actor. I am going to guess that playing Julia must have been very exhausting for Swinton. I can’t imagine the kind of focus that this demanded. Well done, Tilda. Watch ‘Julia’–I recommend it!