The Souvenir Review
Joanna Hogg has remained on the fringes of the UK film industry for much of her career, her unique, unassuming films typically sought out by the art-house crowd. The Souvenir is still very much in keeping with her usual style but the presence of Tilda Swinton and her daughter, Honor Swinton Byrne, has created a level of interest not seen around Hogg’s work until now (Tom Hiddleston featured in her previous three films but he was not the star he is today) and it’s exciting to finally see her given a larger platform and exposed to a wider audience.
The Souvenir is a semi-autobiographical story about a relationship Hogg lived through in the early to mid-80s. As both writer and director it allows her the room to recall early life experiences, in terms of falling in love, self-discovery and her initial ventures into the world of filmmaking. The story is set to continue at some point next year with the release of The Souvenir: Part II which has already started production and picks up immediately where this first entry leaves off.
Byrne apparently had no plans to follow her mother into acting and yet makes it seem incredibly effortless. She was a last minute choice for the role, although you’d never have guessed, and she appears as Julie, an early 20s wannabe artist entering film school and starting to explore the sketched cinematic ideas she has started to form. She lives a privileged life in Knightsbridge and is propped up financially by her country estate-living mother (Swinton) when funds are running low.
Overly conscious of her wealthy background she wants to expand her horizons and throw herself into a project based on the working class lives of dock workers in the failing industrial heartland of Sunderland. She meets Anthony (Tom Burke) at a house party thrown in her small shared flat and gradually becomes enamoured with him. He says he works for the Home Office and presents himself as a well-to-do gentleman who has a enigmatic air you can imagine has won over many more women before Julie.
But things aren’t all as they seem with Anthony and Hogg gradually ingratiates us into the unstable heart of their developing relationship and Julie’s burgeoning artistic career. The story is told through impressionistic recollections blended into more formal dramatic sequences, recalling brief memories that flesh out this specific moment in time. It becomes apparent that Julie is clearly more in love with Anthony than he could ever be with her and his subtle gaslighting ensures Julie keeps him on a pedestal. He disappears for long periods without explanation and constantly asks to borrow money, blaming his absence on the growing demands of his job as the IRA increase their terrorist attacks.
Byrne’s naivety as an actor being perfect for such a vulnerable character is one thing, but watching her interact with her real mother onscreen creates a semi-realism that wouldn’t have been possible with the casting of another actress. No script was written for the film, with everything improvised in the moment, but the dialogue never feels unconstructed or too loose to be believable. There is also a scene-stealing cameo from Richard Ayoade (a real-life filmmaker playing a self-centred filmmaker, perhaps mimicking his own book Ayoade on Ayoade) and you hope he makes it back for the second film.
The casting of Swinton’s daughter for the role layers the film with an additional meta texture on top of the internal commentary being made by Hogg about her own filmmaking. Hogg’s first short film, Caprice, featured a then unknown Swinton and moments from their first time working together are reconstructed in The Souvenir. It’s here we see the uncertainty and stumbling around that comes with trying to find your artistic voice, which is used to mirror the ongoing relationship issues Julie is experiencing with Anthony. His smug, condescending manner successfully manipulates Julie’s unguarded openness as she navigates her own internal emotional conflicts.
Attention to detail has always been one of Hogg’s greatest strengths and the creation of Julie’s flat and life at college has real tangible quality. The smallest of details make this feel like a lived-in world where even the changing of the bed headboard reflects the evolving status of a fraught relationship. While the final act is perhaps a touch too long, this is a quietly intense character study immersing us into a young woman’s first love that will eventually shape all others that follow.
The Souvenir opens in select UK cinemas on August 30.