I discovered this on my way to the Tilda Swinton festival at the Brattle. So far this week, I've seen her in Sally Potter's Orlando (1993), and in two Derek Jarman films. Orlando remains an absolute delight. I love the wit; I love Orlando's glances through the fourth wall; I love the doubling of the scurrilous Nick Greene and the publisher, and the Sebastian and Viola casting of Sasha and Shelmerdine. I adore Quentin Crisp's Elizabeth I. (He was born to play that part.) I love the Jacobean winter funeral, and the teacup topiary, and the perfectly truthful absurdity of most of the costumes. I love the scene where (as I once wrote) Orlando "rushes in a fury into a hedge maze ... whisking round a corner, she emerges in another century, in another cage of skirt."
I confess that Tilda Swinton gave me Thea's fiery hair in Cloud & Ashes. She's a fabulous muse—which is all I share artistically with Derek Jarman.
Caravaggio (1986) is imperfect and astonishing. It was one of Sean Bean's earliest films, and Swinton's first. The stagings of the paintings in the film are so perfectly Caravaggiesque—so blasphemous, numinous, intemperate, unmoving, shadowy, and dazzling, so cold and so engorged with godhead. They are clearly what the artist saw. The canvases on screen are merely sketches: art is what the camera sees.
Still trying to get my head around The Last of England (1987), which is incandescent. It's so dazzling it hurts. Literally: I have eyestrain from the visionary flicker. The rant is on the fall of England—all its goodness and greenness, every vestige of decency—under Thatcher, a gut-wrenchingly relevant anger. Part of it I saw as Asmodeus' Books: it begins with the auteur speaking as he writes a curse in a cluttered workroom, in a beautiful italic hand: what he spells, is. (Greenaway appears to have stolen that image, in a prettier, post-modernist take.) Out of the whirlwind, I recall a few most vivid scenes. There was an evocation of the Ford Madox Ford [Brown! Ford Madox Brown! My proofing skills have gone to hell] painting from which the film takes its name: a huddle of despairing people at a harbor, underlaid with Marianne Faithfull singing, "Speed, Bonny Boat"—but they're prisoners. There is no boat, and no Australia. They've simply come to the end of ground. There was a naked Poor Tom, gnawing on a demonic raw cauliflower. It would terrify a vegetarian into eating sashimi—at least that doesn't writhe and flap. No really—it looked like some sort of brain-bird with broken pinions. And there were sequences of astounding beauty: Pan dancing in a brickyard, and Tilda Swinton whirling in silhouette before the flames of the apocalypse.
Later: sovay and rushthatspeaks have posted brilliant reviews of The Last of England, here and here. I stand in awe.