Although I knew that Tilda Swinton was the star of Julia (2008), and had bought it solely for that reason, I still failed to recognise her when she first appeared on screen. I’m used to seeing her play quite severe and sophisticated characters, so it was a surprise to see her looking so trashy and gutter-glamorous… a very pleasant surprise in fact, because while Swinton often looks striking in her more dapper roles, she’s downright foxy here as a promiscuous alcoholic, stumbling her way into one of the most reckless criminal capers this side of a Coen Brothers’ movie.
The story of a bleary-eyed, barely functional grifter kidnapping the grandchild of a millionaire “electronics kingpin”, while betraying/implicating the child’s heartbroken birthmother (who’d been frozen out by the well-to-do family and dreamed up the scheme in the first place), could be the stuff of soul-crushing tragedy… but with Swinton in the lead role, it somehow becomes a white-knuckle comedy of errors. I’m not normally a fan of long movies, so I was a bit wary of Julia’s 137 minute running time… but once I started watching, I couldn’t tear myself away! It’s such an unpredictable story, with such an off-kilter anti-heroine, that the time just flew by… and before I knew it, the credits were rolling, and I was left desperate to spend more time in the company of Swinton’s surprisingly smart, resourceful and sympathetic creation.
In an accompanying interview, Swinton refers to this film as “a zoological experiment in amoral compassion”, and it’s remarkable how invested you become in seeing Julia “succeed” somehow, while simultaneously aware that she’s a remorseless liar, killer, and child abuser (in the non-sexual, neglectful sense). I attribute this dissonant doublethink to great writing and direction, combined with a fantastic performance from an inestimable leading actress.