5/24/2019

Review: 'The Souvenir', Pain Gives Way To Hope In Joanna Hogg's Captivating Coming-Of-Age Drama


Joanna Hogg's The Souvenir feels like someone taking a deep exhalation of confusion, frustration, and anger after a long time of holding it in. There's reason for that; the veteran British filmmaker of some three decades, yet only on her fourth feature, pulled from a dark episode of her romantic past to authenticate this contemplative and thrilling drama about a young woman's poisonous first love. It's the kind of film that is so deeply personal it's almost too painful to watch unfold, but is captivating for exactly the same reason.

After quite a bit of distance, Hogg takes this particularly painful moment and presents it as a catalyst for her personal and creative evolution.  As a man much wiser than myself once told me, "Pain and adversity introduce us to ourselves". More often than not, it's through turmoil that we learn how much we can truly endure. If we come out on the other side as better people, was the pain not worth it?


Functioning as Hogg's surrogate Julie is newcomer Honor Swinton Byrne. If the middle name sounds familiar, it's because she's the daughter of Tilda Swinton, and acts opposite her mother in this film. No pressure, kiddo.  Believe it or not, Byrne more than holds up to her mother's high standard and emerges as a true breakout. Julie is an aspiring filmmaker in 1980s England, looking to break out of her upper-class comfort zone with a misguided film about an impoverished mother and son, the latter compulsive in his desire to please. The more she tries to describe the project to others, the less she sounds capable of capturing such a story honestly. Julie's not a bad person, just too eager and na├»ve, a bad combination for anybody.

And that's what opens the door for the arrival of Anthony (Tom Burke) into her life. Dressed to the nines and with claims of working a dull but important-sounding foreign affairs job, Tom seems like a pretty decent bloke. Their meeting is random, their conversation is pretty bland but he's got some charm. He takes her to see the Wallace Collection, buys lunch (with a check. Curious.), and says just enough to convince Julie that her experiences matter, too. It's what she needs to hear; they grow close quickly, too quickly. Anthony isn't who he seems. He's not buying lunch anymore. He's moved in to her neat little flat (an exact replica of Hogg's when she too was a 25-year-old aspiring filmmaker), but is rarely there. He's also a high-functioning drug addict. This is not what Julie signed up for, however it's also the adventure that's been missing from her life and, in a really twisted kind of way, gives her life a bit of meaning.


A look at Hogg's films will see that narrative structure runs fairly loose; she's more interested in human emotions and experiences. It's been said that most of the dialogue was scripted with the exception of Byrne's, who was encouraged to respond honestly through improvisation. The result is an amazingly naturalistic performance from Byrne, one that goes well with the minimalist camerawork from cinematographer David Raedeker. His manipulations of light and darkness revealing Julie's innocence in contrast to Anthony's growing menace, eventually brightening up when revelation gives way to self-confidence. Hogg prefers to show rather than have her characters speak every detail. There's beauty in the gossamer visuals, but that beauty soon gives way to a degree of paranoia and claustrophobia. Whether he's in the frame or not, Anthony always seems to have Julie hemmed in, trapped within four walls.

Swinton's performance as Julia's concerned mother hasn't been mentioned yet because, well, it's fine. We expect greatness from her so often that we don't really even think about it anymore, but in this case I think Swinton underplays the role a little, perhaps so as not to overshadow Byrne. Not that she need to have worried. This is Byrne's film through and through, and what a tough, emotive role it is as Julie roller coasters from joy to debilitating depression, from arrogance to self-doubt, with rapid speed. Her equal in this is Burke, who as Anthony is your classic charlatan, wounding with words that sound like compliments but are exactly the opposite. Burke will make you hate Anthony, and quickly. You'll see right through him and wonder why Julie can't do the same. Love is what now? Oh yeah, it's pretty blind.


A coming-of-age drama that's more like picking at an old scab, The Souvenir eventually finds hopefulness out of the agony. It may have taken the benefit of time and distance for Hogg to find that hope for herself, and now she presents it cinematically for others to take and learn from.

Rating: 4 out of 5