This article was written exclusively for The Film Magazine by thecineblog’s Sophie Butcher.
The Souvenir (2019)
Director: Joanna Hogg
Screenwriter: Joanna Hogg
Starring: Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton
Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) is a young film student living in London in the early 1980s. She wears oversized shirts, carries an Olympus camera round her neck at parties, and sits at a typewriter each day, attempting to bring her film project to life. As she gets more involved in a tense and somewhat troubling relationship with the much older Anthony (Tom Burke), she struggles to balance her creative dreams with the ups and downs of loving him.
The Souvenir, at times, feels like an impenetrable film. It has a pace that’s hard to put your finger on; slow burning but also jumping about, not lingering in any one place too long. The tone is subtle and sincere. The muted palette and softly spoken dialogue each force you to focus and pick out the details. There’s a lot of pretentious people talking about pretentious things in a mostly pretentious way.
But then, there are glimpses of relatability as the connections between those characters unfold. It’s unclear who Anthony actually is to Julie in the beginning, but director Joanna Hogg peels back the layers very slowly and deliberately to show us what they mean to each other – a playful argument about taking up too much room in bed; Julie’s passive aggressive reaction when learning just a little about Anthony’s ex-girlfriends. Time and time again we see the aftermath or the prologue of an interaction, the conversations around the conflict rather than the conflict itself. This adds up to a paradoxical sense of frustration at not being shown the whole story alongside an increased curiosity about what we’ve missed.
The other key pairing is between Julie and her mum, played by Swinton Byrne’s real life mother Tilda Swinton. Unsurprisingly, Swinton (senior) is outstanding, grounding an otherwise flitting and fleeting film with acts of maternal affection – like taking Julie’s hand to wordlessly look at something and then drop it again over a cup of tea, or when she brings over a lamp she otherwise would have thrown out because ‘there’s never enough light in here’, or, even, how she tacitly questions why Julie is asking to loan more money (but only for a second, because she was always going to give it to her).
The project that Julie is so focused on as The Souvenir opens is her first feature film about a boy named Tony living in Sunderland. She talks about how Tony loves his mother and his city, and how if his mother were to die, it would be a metaphor for Sunderland itself – a place she describes as ‘dying, decaying, rotten’. As grating a statement this is on the ears of those from the North East, a region so often kicked in the teeth by the upper class within which Julie resides, it is an indication that she is being led by her prejudice and assumptions rather than the story that is actually there to tell.
Anthony calls her out on this, asking whether she just wants to ‘document some received idea of life up there’. She says ‘no’, and that her characters are versions of real people – she’s just ‘designing new ones to fit what I want to make’. This idea of Julie basing her life, art or actions on a ‘received’ idea comes up again, too; the entire film feels like Hogg trying to break down Julie’s expectations of how things should be, and show her what they really are instead.
The core thing driving Julie’s character development through the film is her connection with Anthony. They feel like a strange couple – as Richard Ayoade states in a cracking cameo, ‘I’m trying to work out where you two tessellate’ – and seem to move between intellectual debate, petty fights and occasional lightheartedness. Power shifts between them in intriguing ways; Anthony speaks regally and is rarely seen outside of a formal suit, but his facade deteriorates as the runtime passes. Julie is clearly smitten, soaking up every word Anthony says as though it were audible magic, and not questioning the fact that she always seems to be left with the bill or loaning him money as he walks out the door.
At times, you struggle to understand what makes these characters worth your attention. He seems nothing more than a gaslighting egotist, whilst she comes across as slightly spoilt, slightly dull, and like a kind of frailer, quieter Hannah Horvath who uses her parents’ wealth as a crutch so she can ‘work on her art’. The pacing of their journey feels far too prolonged at the start and far too rushed at the end, but stick with it and you’ll find yourself more invested than you realised you could be; especially in who Julie is and who she could be in the already confirmed The Souvenir Part II.
If you’re truly paying attention, the final two shots of the film will look you right in the eye and send shivers down your spine – they’re so impactful that they make the two hours that came before them feel like time well spent.
By Sophie Butcher
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