The Souvenir

Review by Hannah Woodhead @goodjobliz

Directed by

Joanna Hogg

Starring

Honor Swinton Byrne Tilda Swinton Tom Burke

Anticipation.

Always keen to check in with what Joanna Hogg’s been up to.

Enjoyment.

Tender and charming, but the bitter sting elevates it to greatness.

In Retrospect.

A quiet, disquieting demonstration of personal memoir and unquestionable filmmaking prowess.

Joanna Hogg explores her own memories to create a fragile, fascinating portrait of romance in both bloom and decay.

Since her 2007 debut feature Unrelated, Joanna Hogg has built a reputation for her well-met explorations of feckless upper echelon ennui – comedian Stewart Lee, in one of his stand-up shows, described her 2010 family drama Archipelago as “an art film about middle-class people on a disappointing holiday”. On the surface these films seem ominously specific, relating to the unique problems of the quietly comfortable, but Hogg’s gift as a filmmaker and storyteller is how these intimate scenarios – wry inspections of how the other half live – deal as much in the abstract as they do in objective reality.

From a viewer’s perspective, The Souvenir feels like her most ambitious project to date, conceived as a pair of films (Part Two is set to reach us in 2020) concerning Hogg’s own time at film school in the 1980s, and a personal relationship she experienced. Drawing on her own memories, she casts newcomer Honor Swinton Byrne (daughter of Tilda) as Julie, her avatar, a waifish film student with an agreeable nature and little concept of the world beyond her own window.

Julie, with her flat in Knightsbridge and well-to-do parents in their country pile, is unmistakably an emblem of privilege, often blissfully unaware of her own good fortune. At the film’s opening, she describes her idea for a narrative feature set in the shipyards of Sunderland, focussing on the relationship between a working class boy and his mother. “I want to not live my life in this privileged bubble,” she says, but she calls Mummy the instant she needs money, she indulges in lavish dinners at the Grand Hotel. Julie – wispy, ethereal Julie – is a portrait of the artist as a young woman, wide-eyed and, thus far, mostly shielded from the horrors of life’s rich pageant.

So it sneaks in, through mentions of the ongoing conflict in Northern Ireland and the Chelsea Barracks bombing of 10 October 1981, but Julie experiences much of her life either behind a camera or a pane of glass. Enter Anthony (Tom Burke), a charming civil servant and former soldier. He is a worldly creature. When he saunters into the house party Julie is hosting, our heroine is enchanted from the off. Their courtship is delicate, as Anthony travels for his foreign office job while Julie settles into her education at film school, but it builds to a towering crescendo, where noble romantic delusions are shattered by vicious reality.

Burke and Swinton Byrne’s piercing performances are the film’s crowning glory – their natural chemistry is the beating heart of The Souvenir. Hogg’s decision to withhold plot details from her cast, and in the case of the latter, not provide a shooting script at all, creates a sense of expert fragmentation. Realisations come slower to Julie than they do to us, the all-seeing audience, as we gain a sense not only for Julie’s naiveté, but the deep ache of wanting someone to so desperately match up to an image built in your mind’s eye.

Those familiar with Hogg’s wonderful gift for nuance and expression will recognise that Julie’s articulateness is no accident; she is deliciously undone, out of her element so often in the face of Anthony’s withering barbs. With the passage of time, Julie and Anthony’s romance becomes all-consuming. He shows her the world, his world, of Venetian opera and Fragonard canvases on display at Marylebone’s Wallace Collection. They host a dinner party with Anthony’s friends, including filmmaker Patrick (Richard Ayoade), who tells Julie there are no rules when it comes to making art. “It’s like telling someone how to breathe or think,” he declares.

But the more Julie understands of Anthony’s world, the more poison begins to seep into her own. The selfish, grotesque nature of addiction looms large, insidiously causing Julie to withdraw into herself, away from friends and family, as Anthony gaslights her into believing his pain is hers to endure.

Tilda Swinton – long-time friend of Hogg’s, who starred in her 1986 short film Caprice – plays Julie’s mother Rosalind, who we first encounter in red wellingtons and a headscarf, beset by a delightful cocker spaniel, carrying a large lamp up a flight of stairs. She is Julie’s bedrock, steadfast and dependable, and Swinton, with her uncanny ability to turn from otherworldly creature to frightfully posh lady of the manor, sparkles in her small but integral role. Late in the film, a single line delivery devastates. Her fragility and tenderness have never been more apparent as she hunches in on herself and quietly shakes, wracked with tears. For The Souvenir, in all its intricacy and intimacy, is deeply painful too, such a deliberate, focussed presentation of how love sometimes just isn’t enough.

How much do we lie to ourselves, Hogg wonders, in order to chase an image we’ve built up in our head of how life (or indeed love) should be? Even the process of remembering is as hazy and grainy as physical film. David Raedeker, on DoP duties, creatures striking portraits in close-up and wide-shot, evoking the plush detail of the Rococo painting that lends Hogg’s film its name, then the stark realism which Julie so desperately seeks as a filmmaker. There’s nowhere to hide; everything comes clean in the end.

Discussing her filmmaking plans, Anthony tells Julie, “We don’t want to see life played out as it is – we want to see life as it is experienced within this soft machine.” So this is what Hogg shows us, through a painstaking process of personal excavation. Her visual memoir is a romance, a trauma, a family drama, a heartbreaking coming-of-age spectacle, art about the compulsion to create art – a swirling, shapeshifting, delicate but dark creature.

Its softness cannot be mistaken for weakness, as the edges of The Souvenir are as sharp as broken glass. Hogg’s honesty and articulacy have never been more clearly on display, and though Julie’s story is intricate and specific, it deals mostly in the art of being young and alive, desperate to feel something that shakes the fabric of your soul.

Published 24 Aug 2019

Tags: Honor Swinton Byrne Joanna Hogg Tilda Swinton Tom Burke

Anticipation.

Always keen to check in with what Joanna Hogg’s been up to.

Enjoyment.

Tender and charming, but the bitter sting elevates it to greatness.

In Retrospect.

A quiet, disquieting demonstration of personal memoir and unquestionable filmmaking prowess.

Related Reviews

LWLies 80: The Souvenir + 100 Mould-Breaking British Films

By David Jenkins

This special, expanded edition of the magazine celebrates British cinema and contains moving illustrations.

Remembering Tom Hiddleston as Joanna Hogg’s muse

By Beatrice Loayza

He may have hit pay dirt at Marvel, but Hiddleston found his acting feet as the British director’s roguish muse.

Joanna Hogg and Honor Swinton Byrne on the art of vulnerability

By Sophie Monks Kaufman

The writer/director and star of The Souvenir discuss diaries, memories and the life-changing qualities of making art.

What are you looking for?

Little White Lies Logo

About Little White Lies

Little White Lies was established in 2005 as a bi-monthly print magazine committed to championing great movies and the talented people who make them. Combining cutting-edge design, illustration and journalism, we’ve been described as being “at the vanguard of the independent publishing movement.” Our reviews feature a unique tripartite ranking system that captures the different aspects of the movie-going experience. We believe in Truth & Movies.

Editorial

Design

Sign up to our newsletter to hear more from team LWLies