A semi-autobiographical portrait of an artist that is at once severe and compassionate, painterly and spontaneous, formally rigorous and fluent (much of the dialogue is improvised), The Souvenir sees writer/director Joanna Hogg bring meaning to the memories of her formative years as a filmmaker. It also offers a fascinating study of co-dependent, tortuous love.
When we first meet Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne, daughter of Tilda Swinton, who plays her mum in the film), she’s living in Knightsbridge in the early 1980s – a 24-year-old film student putting together a debut feature set in the shipyards of Sunderland. A well-meaning pursuit, but does her eagerness to pop her own bubble of privilege give her the right to appropriate such a story? It’s a question that she’s at least aware of.
Julie’s professors, all men, frown at her every suggestion – among many other things, The Souvenir touches, with surgical precision, upon the silencing of women in the arts – and she likewise receives pointed feedback from Anthony (Tom Burke), with whom she falls in love after meeting at a party. Anthony works for the Foreign Office. Older than Julie, he seems impossibly sophisticated and exotically world-weary. He also, thrillingly, sees Julie, though he’s frequently condescending and at times utterly contemptuous.
The above synopsis doesn’t begin to express the complexity of the character portrayals and the relationship dynamic, with Byrne and Burke peeling back layers to startle at every turn. These surprises are not movie surprises – a Keyser Söze reveal, say – but organic, and all the more mesmerising for it. Masks slip, moods shift, and secrets and lies bubble to the surface as life pushes and pulls. Nearly all of the action is set indoors (most of it in Julie’s apartment, which is closely modelled on Hogg’s own at the time), and the toxicity spreads to every corner, making it hard to breathe. Not at the expense of nuance, though, with love and sympathy never lost in the mix.
Like Hogg’s three previous films (Unrelated, Archipelago, Exhibition), The Souvenir wrestles with questions of class and Englishness, while the politics of the time informs the frame. At one point Julie’s flat shakes to the sound of an unseen blast – the IRA bombing of Harrods in 1983. It is not by chance, however, that one discussion between Julie and Anthony brings up the movies of Powell and Pressburger. Like those classics, The Souvenir swerves on-the-nose message-making and defies easy categorisation. It’s a strikingly personal drama that captures a time and a nation. Watch it and you’ll be gagging for the sequel that Hogg is currently making.