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Ice and fire

In 2008 Tilda Swinton completed her transformation from art-house darling to Hollywood power player.

You have to wait until the end credits for the biggest surprise in Erick Zonca's Julia, a film that looks like a thriller but is really a rhapsodic love letter to its star, Tilda Swinton. The surprise reads: "Miss Swinton's security by Abel Teran." And you think: This woman needs security? If I ever meet Mr Teran, I will shake him by one of his presumably enormous hands and congratulate him on being formidable enough to protect one of the toughest cookies in film acting since Joan Crawford raised hell in Johnny Guitar.

A friend of mine once referred erroneously to Swinton as English (she's a proud Scot) and received a slap in the face from her for his troubles. Although it's true that I have watched all her performances since then through the mental image of that slap, which perhaps accounts for my feeling that she is the Grace Jones of British cinema, there was always a fearsome and fearless aspect to this un-needy performer.

It was there in Swinton's early work with Derek Jarman in the mid- to late Eighties and early Nineties, and in 1992 it dictated the entire nature of Sally Potter's Orlando. Somewhere around the end of the Nineties, her persona - brittle but sensuous, chilly but suggestive of great passion - spilled over from the art-house margins and into the mainstream. The world woke up to her and what she could yet become.

Swinton has pulled off some impressive feats since then. She seduced Leonardo DiCaprio in The Beach and Ewan McGregor in Young Adam; the best part was watching her treat both men as affectionately as old scabs. In The War Zone, she made it seem perfectly likely that an intelligent woman might find herself married for 20 years to Ray Winstone. And as the White Witch in the first Chronicles of Narnia film, she used the platform of a special-effects blockbuster to cultivate one of her most self-referential performances, honing her deep-frozen sensuality to a stalactite-sharp point. She needs to go against that grain now, before she winds up in another dead end like the Coen brothers' Burn After Reading, which insultingly demanded nothing of her other than same old, same old.

So, Julia is just the ticket. It is appropriate that the picture is opening now: this has, after all, been her year, and the film is both her showreel and her curtain call. She began 2008 by winning an Oscar for Michael Clayton; after that, she worked with the Coens and on David Fincher's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (released here next month). In the summer she co-organised an eccentric and much-praised film festival in Nairn, and it was recently announced that she will serve as president of the jury at next year's Berlin festival. If a window presents itself in her schedule, she may produce a solution to the world economic crisis, possibly in the form of interpretive dance. (You shouldn't rule out anything with her.)

When we first see Swinton in Zonca's film, she is a blurry cyclone of glitter, thighs, bruised eyeshadow and forest-fire hair. Julia is a 40-year-old soak who totters through zombiefied days and boozy nights, coming round on the back seats of cars or in unkempt beds from which Tracey Emin would run screaming. "What do I do?" Julia asks in a moment of introspection. "I smile, I eat shit from guys. I don't love anybody. I get drunk. And I'm getting old." She breaks down in front of her friend Mitch (Saul Rubinek), who is aghast at her sobbing - "A big giraffe like you!" he splutters, capturing perfectly her gangly aloofness.

What Julia needs is something to distract her from downing shots in sleazy bars. I was thinking along the lines of philately or "am dram"; what she gets is a crash course in kidnapping, but hey, beggars can't be choosers. A distraught neighbour, Elena (Kate del Castillo), promises $50,000 if Julia will help snatch her estranged son, Tom (Aidan Gould), who is living with his billionaire grandfather. The unhinged woman plans to hold him for ransom. But Julia decides to turn the tables and keep the boy herself while squeezing a second ransom from the mother. Maybe it's Julia's inability to stow her whisky bottle, even when she is on the verge of nabbing the child, but something tells you this will be no walk in the park. Sure enough, the plan goes awry, and Julia hides out at a motel with Tom, plotting her next move, less calculating chessmaster than galum phing beginner at Twister.

As you would expect, the adventure transpires to be the making of this no-hoper. By starting the film with Julia at rock bottom, Zonca goes easy on the audience; she's in such a state that the only way is up. Another performer might have made her a Cruella de Vil-style pantomime turn, hamming up her animosity towards the child. Bravely, Swinton keeps Julia conniving almost to the last. It's cruelly funny when she tells the boy, "Nothing bad is gonna happen to you" - she is pressing a gun to his temple and wearing a grotesque black mask at the time. But it is also properly frightening, even though you know she'll play nice in the end.

That's how it panned out in Gloria, the 1980 film that inspired Julia. Directed by John Cassavetes and starring his wife, Gena Rowlands, as an ex-moll who defends an orphan against the mobsters who killed his family, Gloria was that couple's sweetest and most unlikely collaboration (though Rowlands only got the role after the studio's first choice, Barbra Streisand, declared it too "unglamorous").

Cassavetes said of his wife's performance: "Gena is subtle, delicate. She's a miracle. She's straight. She believes in what she believes in . . . She doesn't try to make it different - she just is, because the way she thinks is different from the way most actors think." Substitute "Tilda" for "Gena", and those observations lose none of their acuteness.

But, as films, both Gloria and Julia fall short of the standard set by their central performance. (Could it be that Rowlands and Swinton are so magnetic in these pictures that they suck the energy, black-hole-like, from everything around them?) Like Cassavetes, Zonca has entered genre cinema caring not a jot about its need for logic or plausibility. Julia is reckless, but would she really leave her young ward at a random spot in the desert and expect him to be there when she returned? And would the crooks who prey on her in Tijuana allow themselves to be followed so easily to their hideout? It's not as if Swinton, with her transparent, piglet-pink skin, can stay incognito for very long in a Mexican street scene.

Like most authors of love letters, Zonca does not know when to quit. Yorick le Saux's cinematography contrives sumptuous images from scuzzy locations, yet this lushness is overdone; during a long close-up of the actress in an elevator, you can almost hear the director sighing at her cheekbones. Yet Swinton hurls everything she's got into this performance. She is playing a character who couldn't walk in a straight line if her life depended on it, but she never puts a foot wrong.

The actress can also be seen in The Man from London, by the exacting Hungarian auteur Béla Tarr. As the wife of a docks manager (Miroslav Krobot) who witnesses a murder and finds himself in receipt of stolen loot, Swinton is essentially part of the furniture; she is afforded the same status in the film's hierarchy as the unending takes, the spiralling, accordion-led score or the solemn black-and-white cinematography. Her enigmatic face is beyond the probing even of Tarr's surgically precise camera, yet it is telling that she seems no less free in his regimented frame than in the harum-scarum chaos of Julia. As a woman who once slept in a glass case in the middle of the Serpentine Gallery as part of an installation, she knows the value of inertia, the incontestable power of stillness.

The Man from London is so gripping in its funereal way, and so rigorous in its exploration of guilt and punishment, that even the terrible dubbing comes to feel like a necessary part of its eerie parallel world, in which anything might happen. There is a jarring episode featuring two overbearing tailors straight out of The Fast Show, and various instances of deliciously arch dialogue ("May I go up to my room?" "As you wish. But your overcoat stays here"). One scene in a bar ends, for no clear reason, with an elderly man perching a snooker ball on the bridge of his nose while a second fellow balances a chair precariously over the first man's head - not your average night down the Dog and Duck.

Swinton fits comfortably into this off-kilter setting. She is living proof of Robert Altman's argument that actors can be auteurs, too. Her work in Julia and The Man from London deserves to make 2008 known as the year of the big giraffe.

"Julia" (certificate 15) is out now. "The Man from London" (15) opens on 12 December

Tilda Swinton: the CV

Harry Williams

1960 Born in London to an aristocratic Scottish father and an Australian mother

1983 Graduates from New Hall, Cambridge with a degree in English Literature

1984 Joins the Royal Shakespeare Company and appears in four minor roles at the Barbican. Later says the RSC taught her "how not to do it"

1985 Moves to Edinburgh and joins the Traverse Theatre Company. Meets future husband, the Scottish painter John Byrne

1986 Appears in Derek Jarman's Caravaggio. She would appear in every one of his films until his death in 1994, notably The Last of England (1988) and Edward II (1991)

1992 Plays title role in Sally Potter's adaptation of the Virginia Woolf novel Orlando

1995 Appears in The Maybe, an installat ion by Cornelia Parker at the Serpentine Gallery, for which she lives in a glass case for a week

1998 Plays Muriel Belcher, founder of the Colony Room, in John Maybury's Love Is the Devil, a dramatisation of the life of the painter Francis Bacon

2000 Stars with Leonardo DiCaprio and Virginie Ledoyen in The Beach

2003 Star of the Dutch design team Viktor & Rolf's "One Woman Show", for which all the models are made over to look like her

2008 Wins Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in Michael Clayton and stars in the Coen brothers' Burn After Reading

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, After the Terror