Men. Women. A man who transforms into a woman across several centuries. A bi-millennial vampire drained of inspiration. A cryogenic company CEO in the year 2151. A crime-covering mother. A conniving lawyer. The White Witch. A balleticwitch. Gabriel the Archangel. The Ancient One. Social Services. Twin sisters. Amy Schumer’s boss.
Since 1986, Tilda Swinton’s unparalleled eclecticism has enlivened stories about drinkers, sailors, soldiers, spies and so much more. This month, Midwest Film Journal staffers and contributors look back at the wild, weird and wonderful ways this Oscar-winning actress and international treasure keeps it going Tilda Break of Dawn.
We’ve seen it a thousand times before: Stoic master trains gifted but resistant student while doling out the occasional pseudointellectual platitudes about the ancient wisdom.
Pai Mei. Obi-Wan Kenobi. Morpheus. Mr. Miyagi. The list goes on and on.
Our hero arrives, begging to be taught. The teacher hesitates, claiming the path is long and takes decades to master. The teacher sets out impossible tasks that our hero student doesn’t understand. The student doubts and fails and then learns to believe in themselves. There’s a training sequence interspersed with a couple key moments of exposition. The teacher reveals they knew the student had it in him/her all along, and our hero leaves an unstoppable master after … three weeks of rigorous montages.
It would be totally forgivable to expect the same routine from Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One in Doctor Strange. It’s not just that the path is so well-worn that any movie fan could more or less write the second act if someone gave them the key plot points to hit. It’s also that Swinton isn’t a superhero blockbuster kind of actor. There’s a pattern for this kind of thing, too: The serious “artsy” actor steps into a big-money franchise, phoning it in for a few hokey scenes and some green-screen work to keep the bills paid between more interesting parts. Sometimes it works — Heath Ledger won a posthumous Oscar for The Dark Knight and Al Pacino was nominated for Dick Tracy — but usually it’s a disaster. Tommy Lee Jones in Batman Returns. Charlize Theron in Aeon Flux. Ben Kingsley in BloodRayne. George Clooney in Batman & Robin.
Swinton could have easily sat back, spouted off lines like “Silence your ego and your power will rise” with a straight face for a couple of hours and called it a day. She didn’t need to give us more. No one expected more, and no one would have held it against her. But she gives us more, though. So much more. Swinton treats what could be a relatively silly story about a reality-bending sorcerer and a dimension-devouring demon from beyond time and space like it’s the last performance she’ll ever give. Her command of the screen is there from the start. In the movie’s opening scene, it’s the Ancient One who introduces the audience to the mind-blowing, Escher-esque special effects that are Doctor Strange’s signature look. She strides onscreen to battle a half-dozen evil sorcerers — calm, confident and eminently unafraid. When they escape, we get the first glimpse of what makes Swinton special in her puzzled facial expression. The Ancient One, Sorcerer Supreme and defender of Earth, had not expected to lose. She’s not an unflappable, emotionless master. Confident, yes, but also clearly annoyed.
In any superhero origin story, someone is going to get stuck with the world-building, and Doctor Strange is no exception. Swinton carries it off, but there’s no escaping the fact that for a solid half-hour, most of her lines are straight up exposition and backstory. It’s as predictable as it is necessary, but even here she’s got some great moments — the little flourishes that make the Ancient One so much more than a taller, androgynous Yoda.
When Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) arrives at the Ancient One’s temple, begging to be trained, she rejects him. This would be on brand for the ancient-teacher archetype, except that we see another side when Master Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor, also straight-up bringing it) questions her judgment. It’s not that she wants to make Strange work for it a little more, it’s that she legitimately doesn’t want to take the risk. The Ancient One sees Strange’s talent and she’s afraid he’ll turn against her like her last great student, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen).
She tells Mordo, “I cannot lead another gifted student to power only to lose him to the darkness.” Not the most groundbreaking bit of screenwriting, but she brings it to life when Mordo responds, “You didn’t lose me.” He goes on to explain what he meant. But in that brief moment before he does, they lock eyes and you can see the objection rising in her mind: Mordo is loyal and dogged, but he is not gifted. She doesn’t say it aloud and he doesn’t respond to it, but that one little tilt of the head and the pained look in her face convey everything. Her doubt is palpable, and it adds a dimension to her (obvious) decision to admit Strange as a student. It’s not just that Mordo’s insistence that she trained him without losing him is so compelling, it’s the realization she has in that moment from his unfortunate phrasing that she doesn’t have a student powerful enough to follow in her footsteps — that for all his virtues, an army of Mordos won’t be enough for the fight she sees coming. It’s an amazing bit of acting, above and beyond what’s on the page and deeper than is strictly necessary to move the script along.
Swinton also has a gift for sharing the spotlight without losing any of her formidable presence. Cumberbatch is a charismatic and dynamic performer in his own right, ostensibly the star of this show. Instead of challenging him as the focal point, Swinton weaves her performance around his — masterfully using her own strengths to bolster his performance rather than detract from it. He does the same for her, and together they build a believable relationship with real chemistry. Not like some cheesy romantic comedy; this isn’t about love or affection or really even friendship. The feeling we get from Strange and the Ancient One is a sense of mutual respect, born of recognizing the potential for real excellence in another. They understand each other. When Strange reveals to Mordo that the Ancient One has been breaking their own laws to keep herself alive for centuries, that sense of mutual understanding is at the core of Mordo’s revulsion. Swinton set the table early on with the scene discussed above, and she sticks the landing here.
This is why Swinton and Doctor Strange rise above the “popcorn” appeal of the script. These three gifted actors bring a dimension to the scene that goes beyond just the words. Yes, by-the-numbers Mordo is appalled simply because we know he rigidly adheres to the rules and also implicitly trusts the Ancient One. But the interplay among the three is amazing. Swinton again sheds the trope of the stoic master, letting a real desperation creep in as she struggles to deny the accusation not because she thinks she’s right but because she knows Mordo won’t understand. Cumberbatch is triumphant at first. Doctor Strange loves nothing more than to be right, but his face shifts to doubt and then dawning understanding as he realizes that he’d have made the same choices, that the Ancient One simply didn’t feel there was anyone else who could do it as well as she did. As that realization dawns, we see the crack in Ejiofor’s faith. He doesn’t quite believe it yet, and he won’t until he sees the proof a few minutes later, but his face tells us he feels the sting of exclusion as he watches these two much more powerful sorcerers understand each other in a way in which he can never take part. It’s a great scene, masterfully acted by all three, and it brings the conflict between them to life in a manner of which the screenwriters could have only dreamed.
This isn’t the place for a discussion of whether Swinton’s casting here was whitewashing a part that was written as an Asian character in the source material or a triumph for gender representation in its seamless swap of a part written for a man. It’s probably a bit of both things, and it’s a messy conversation — especially when you consider the dangers of playing into the very unfortunate racial stereotypes that dominated the Doctor Strange comics of the 1960s. It’s certainly an important question to raise. But either way, Swinton is absolutely magnificent in the role. In her hands, the Ancient One isn’t some inscrutable paper-thin character who exists solely to get the hero into fighting shape. She’s a real person with genuine depth and a hero in her own right. Thank goodness Swinton doesn’t know how to just show up for a paycheck.