It’s taken a long time for We Need to Talk About Kevin to reach the UAE. Following a premiere at Cannes last October, the long-gestating adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s novel was met with critical raves after release in Europe and North America. It was eventually set for UAE release this April, before suddenly being pulled. Now it’s unlikely to ever see the big screens in Dubai – because it’s just slipped out on DVD. Now that we have the chance to get our hands on what has been hailed as a modern-day masterpiece, we caught up with the film’s controversial star.
Taking a stroll with Tilda Swinton is a bit like being swept up by a well-spoken whirlwind. Her gait is swift and buoyant, while her ideas circulate at speed. We’re talking dysfunctional families – in particular the one at the heart of We Need to Talk About Kevin. In the film, Swinton plays Eva, the mother of a son who goes on a high-school killing spree. ‘They’re just faking it,’ she declares briskly of the film’s characters. ‘Whether it’s the “hey-buddy” school of fatherhood, or the bang-down resentment of the mother, it’s all a performance. There’s a scene from the original book that isn’t in the film when the mother asks Kevin, when he’s incarcerated: “Why didn’t you kill me?” And he says something like: “When you’re putting on a show, you don’t want to shoot the audience.” ’
Given the disturbing subject matter of our conversation – and, to an extent, Swinton’s somewhat other-worldly reputation – I’m surprised by the ‘whoosh’ of friendliness. The affability only cracks on the couple of occasions when I use a term imprecisely. At one point I make the mistake of saying ‘authoritarian’ instead of ‘authority’ to describe an aspect of being a mother. Instantly she’s on it like a peregrine falcon, picking the offending word to pieces: ‘Did I ever sign up to be authoritarian? Aren’t “authority” and “authoritarian” different things?’
There shouldn’t be anything that surprising about the hyper-articulacy or the beak-sharp intelligence. The 51-year-old Swinton has, after all, chiselled a reputation for herself as an intellectually fearless and emotionally versatile actor. She’s collaborated with filmmakers as diverse as Derek Jarman and George Clooney, Sally Potter and the Coen brothers – at one end of the spectrum dazzling as the White Witch in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, at the other sleeping for a week inside a glass box in London’s Serpentine Gallery, as part of a 1995 installation by artist Cornelia Parker. It’s just that when you consider some of her defining roles on film, it’s striking how good she is at expressing an awful lot of emotions without saying very much at all.
When I tell Swinton I feel violated by the movie, she looks triumphant. And so she should: the film, like Lionel Shriver’s book before it, manages to explore the unspoken, sinister aspects of any parent-child relationship. ‘I remember when I had my children [twins: a boy, Xavier and a girl, Honor], I was aware of really, really liking them,’ she says. ‘More than that: really, really loving them. But the second I felt this, I was aware that it might have gone the other way. Can you think of how many countless millions of other women it goes the other way for? And often they think they can’t talk about it because they think that no one has ever experienced that emotion before.’
I’ve been granted an unexpected insight into Swinton’s relationship with her children – something about which she is notoriously private. As we stroll, we pass by an indoor pool. Playing boisterously in the water are a boy and girl in their early teens – the boy most striking because of his waist-length hair – and a handsome dark-bearded man in his early thirties. Swinton laughs with surprised delight. These are her children and her partner, the artist Sandro Kopp, down from Nairn, the remote Scottish seaside town where they live, for a rare trip to London. The children’s happy yelps as they catch sight of Swinton – insofar as one can deduce anything from a few happy yelps – give some indication of just how far she has had to travel emotionally in order to give such a brilliant on-screen evocation of stifled motherhood.
In 2008 she drove media into a frenzy as it speculated – wrongly, she asserts to me a little later – about a romantic entanglement between her, Kopp, 17 years her junior, and her then partner and father of her children, the artist John Byrne, who is 21 years older than her. There was a period of overlap – she started seeing Kopp while she was still living with Byrne – but she and Byrne both stressed that theirs was a civilised arrangement where everyone was happy. ‘John Byrne and I hadn’t been together for a couple of years before I even met Sandro,’ she says to me, as we perch on the slightly overplump sofa in the Haymarket Hotel. ‘It was all Chinese whispers – there had been no acrimony, no divorce between me and John, but that was because there was no marriage.’ So who do the children call daddy? ‘Their father!’ she declares, slightly horrified. And what do they call Sandro? ‘Dude.’
Swinton, as her observers have long known, has always resisted both convention and easy categorisation. The Cambridge University-educated daughter of a major-general went to the same school as Princess Diana, but resisted tiaras to go in the opposite direction, joining the Communist Party in her twenties. As a young adult she quickly found that she was most at home among artists and filmmakers, and this is where the games with identity began.
Wordlessness is also central to her role as Eva. ‘Lionel Shriver’s book is so much more political than the film,’ she says. ‘There’s much more social commentary, looking at modern America during the Bush-era moment. But the film, we knew from the very beginning – partly because we wanted to make a piece of cinema – was not going to be that. It was going to be about inarticulacy, it was going to be about her being isolated, alienated and therefore, being dumb.’
‘We’ refers to Swinton and the director Lynne Ramsay, who between them have created something – there’s no other way to say it – disturbingly beautiful about this devastating, ugly subject. Male violence is central to We Need to Talk About Kevin, but the film’s core theme is to what extent Kevin’s evil actions are the fault of his mother. What’s so brilliant about Swinton’s performance – and about the performances of the three boys who play Kevin at different stages of his life – is that no simple answer bounces off the screen. ‘Lynne and I wanted to make sure that Eva is available to as much projection as possible from the audience,’ she explains. ‘It would be so easy to over-characterise her, even by tweaking it a bit so that it would be possible for mothers in the audience to say, “Oh well, you see I’m not like that, so that’s not my problem.” ’
What is clear is that from the moment she becomes pregnant, Eva is gripped by a morbid dread. Immediately after Kevin is born, when most mothers would be beginning the love-in, she sits in her hospital bed looking like a dejected crow, while her husband (John C Reilly) holds the baby. The movie is not filmed chronologically, but in the jumping backwards and forwards of the scenes you watch the silence and the accompanying hatred between her and her son grow, his little acts of attention-seeking cruelty marking an increasingly deterministic dance towards the ultimate massacre.
I ask her how she thinks people are going to react to the film. ‘This story, let’s face it, is a fantasy, not a documentary,’ she replies. ‘It has as much to do with really bringing up a child as Rosemary’s Baby has with really being pregnant. If you’re going to look at it through the prism of my career, this is really the anti-Orlando… this is the dark portrait in the attic.’
We Need to Talk About Kevin is out now on DVD.