The Souvenir

The Souvenir

2019, R, 119 min. Directed by Joanna Hogg. Starring Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton, Richard Ayoade.

REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., May 31, 2019

You never know you're falling until it's too late. In Joanna Hogg's tender, terrible, heartbreaking love story The Souvenir, the fall starts gently enough, a drop so slight that you'll never anticipate the sickening sense of plummeting weightlessness toward which it almost imperceptibly accelerates.

In early 1980s London, Julie (Swinton Byrne) is the kind of bright young thing that would, in later years and lighter circumstances, be inseparable BFFs with Emma Thompson's terribly chummy Maggie from 1992 university reunion comedy Peter's Friends (a sort of Return of the Secaucus Seven for wealthy Cambridge grads). But she has hazy ambitions of breaking out of her privileged world, where Mummy (Swinton, the perfect, brittle, aging mater, an Edwardian artifact so restrained that she verges on translucent) and Daddy will always be there with a few pounds and a nice home-cooked meal on the family estate. She arrives at film school with ambitions of making a narrative feature about unemployment around the shipyards of Sunderland. She thinks that's the film to make because it's socially important, even as her lecturers politely warn her away from drowning in a topic about which she knows nothing. She is – as caught in a rather perfect musical stab – the kind of disconnected young woman who would listen to Robert Wyatt's ethereal, folksy cover of "Shipbuilding" over Elvis Costello's jagged, smoke-drowned and more overtly political original.

This is when she meets Anthony (Burke): a little older, a little more worldly-wise, just the right amount of danger but from a nice family. Most importantly, he believes in her: not in a shallow, fist-bump way but rather that he sees her flaws and strengths and has the openness to push her forward. Unfortunately, he does that at the same time as he drags her down. It seems that, in his international travels, he brought back the titular souvenir, the little secret that carries a tragedy with it. Yet for Julie the souvenir is Jean-Honoré Fragonard's painting of the same name that Anthony shows her on an early date, its ambiguous image of a woman carving a name in a tree both a romantic yearning and a warning.

Hogg has been open that this intimate calamity is autobiographical – or rather, reconstructed now with the wisdom, ambiguities, and distance of age. There is nothing judgmental in how she balances Anthony's deceptions or Julie's own painful naivete. Instead, she constructs their relationship through tableaux, the camera locked off for each scene as the audience sits in quiet observation of the moments of strife and tenderness. Each moment contains an understated and immediately recognizable portrait of truths in a relationship, like what it means when someone pays for dinner, or the way they sort out space in their bed.

Burke's Anthony is slowly brought into focus through these fragments coming together. He is built in hints: an ill-defined position with the Foreign Office; marks on his arm; a photo of him in Afghanistan in local attire in 1973. That he doesn't talk about what he was doing there (the date is surprisingly pivotal) is so definitionally British. It's a constant cloud of screaming politeness over everything, as epitomized in an awkward dinner conversation about terrorism in Northern Ireland, which Swinton tries to drag to a polite conclusion with a perfectly indecisive declaration of "it's all terribly complicated." That's also a perfect description of Anthony. He can be deceptive and manipulative but never cruel or malicious, and that's a tightrope that Burke walks with swooning grace.

But this is really Swinton Byrne's film, and the depths of quiet emotion she brings as she stands at the cusp of brokenhearted maturity are shattering. Hogg's technique of giving the rest of the cast a script but only providing her central performer a character who responds to these moments was audacious, and could have been a catastrophic failure. Instead, it's what gives the story its scarred heart. Her Julie learns from all these bitter truths and wonderful moments. That Swinton Byrne's performance is so open, so immediate, so caught up in emotional truths rather than performative beats, makes this one of the year's most unique and memorable roles.

Hogg's story is, ultimately, one of the convoluted ambiguities of love, as illuminated by Fragonard's rococo masterpiece. The Souvenir doesn't get under your skin. It clasps your hand tightly, and when it finally lets go, you will feel its absence.

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More Joanna Hogg Films
The Eternal Daughter
Ghosts of family bonds haunt Tilda Swinton in this continuation of The Souvenir

Richard Whittaker, Dec. 2, 2022

The Souvenir Part II
Second part of Joanna Hogg's chronicle of loss

Richard Whittaker, Nov. 12, 2021

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The Souvenir, Joanna Hogg, Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton, Richard Ayoade

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