Thursday, July 16, 2009
If you think there are no strong roles for older women, look again. This month "Downloading Nancy," The Stoning of Soraya M." and "Julia" all showcase actresses over 40. In "Julia" (opening July 17 at Reading Gaslamp Stadium Theaters), Scottish actress Tilda Swinton grabs center stage and makes the most of it. But then for Swinton that's nothing new.
Tilda Swinton starred as a man who transforms into a woman halfway through "Orlando;" she was the evil androgynous angel Gabriel in "Constantine;" she played the White Witch in "The Chronicles of Narnia;" and she won an Oscar as a lawyer trying to outsmart George Clooney in "Michael Clayton." And that's just the tip of the iceberg. If there's one word to sum up the tall, fiery haired actress it would be fearless. She'll take on any part and go to any extreme to make a role her own.
For her latest film, she plays the title role of "Julia." We meet her character in a noisy bar where she seems too much at ease. When one of the married men at the bar inquires what she does, she replies, "I like to make people's dreams come true."
But don't be fooled. Julia’s a nightmare. In a darkened bar with a few drinks she's still striking enough to catch a man's eye but in the cold clear light of morning she's downright scary. She's an alcoholic who routinely drinks herself into oblivion. Then at work she finds it more and more difficult to charm her way out of problems. She pretends she doesn't have a drinking problem but no one's fooled especially not Mitch (Saul Rubinek in a surprisingly strong turn). Mitch is her only friend and his patience is wearing thin. He explains to her, "Do not waste a second thinking you have these magical incredible powers because what you are is an out of control suicidal blind alcoholic. But I'm here. I'm here to help you."
But you can't help someone who's not interested in helping herself. Julia refuses to go to AA meetings and instead gets embroiled in a wild scheme to help a woman kidnap her son from his wealthy grandfather. Then greed prompts Julia to steal the child from the mother. As Julia sees it, the mother has to pay, "it's not like she can go to the
cops, it's the double cross of a lifetime and the money is right there I can smell it."
Of course it's not that easy, and the money’s harder to come by than she thinks. Julia's attempt to kidnap the boy leads her on a downward spiral that has her literally crashing through the Mexican border.
Tilda Swinton carries this film and rivets us to the screen. She doesn't care if we like Julia or feel any sympathy for her. All she cares about is finding the reality of this character and bringing her vividly to life, and she does that. Whether it's the way she takes control of a nightclub as if she owns the place, or the sloppy way she looks the morning after, or the easy way she lies – it's all part of a ferociously real performance. Swinton also invests Julia with a wild sense of desperation and a survivor's instincts for quick improvisation. Swinton's Julia proves tough with a strong sense of self-preservation. She initially reveals no maternal instincts and treats the young boy with such callous cruelty that many may find her behavior impossible to forgive. But a bond between the two does form and despite all the horrific things she does, we're still fascinated by her.
The film, directed by Erick Zonca, takes its cue from Swinton's performance. As a result it feels like a train wreck – chaotic, out of control, and dangerous. The film, like Julia herself, is full of excesses and in need of discipline yet it never fails to hold our interest. It's not a Hollywood film by any means so it's not designed to either make us feel good or to tie things up in pretty little packages. It's an unruly portrait of a woman on the edge, and her act of desperation leads her on an unlikely path of self-realization. She may not find redemption but she does manage to find some shred of humanity, and for Julia that’s something of a triumph.
Companion viewing: "Orlando," "Constantine," "Michael Clayton"