In the early 1980s, a young woman from a wealthy background enrols in a prestigious film school in London. Julie (Honor Swinton-Byrne), from a incredibly privileged background, is struggling with her ambition to make a film about an impoverished family in Thatcher’s Britain, but finds her cosy life upended when she enters a romantic relationship with Anthony; mature, cultured, yet troubled. It’s all taken, according to director Joanna Hogg (Unrelated, Archipelago, Exhibition), from her own experiences during her education as a director.
Hogg confronts issues of wealth and class head-on, showing how Julie’s insulation from struggle of any kind have left her adrift in London, and in life. In her tastefully appointed bolt hole in Knightsbridge, Julie listens to The Fall at parties with her local friends, but when the charismatic Anthony moves in, rock is slowly replaced by opera. As she’s introduced to Antony’s social circle, and she’s forced to borrow more money to support his habits, the truth about Antony’s character is slowly revealed.
Coming from the sterility of her parents house in the countryside, isolated in her airless flat far above London, and patronised by her tutors at school for her alienation from the problems of real life, there’s a troubling suggestion that Julie might be keeping Anthony in her life because she doesn’t realise the depth of his troubles (when Julie spots cuts and bruises on Antony’s arms, she doesn’t recognise them as track marks from drug abuse). When trouble does arrive, it’s appropriately flooring for the audience, with disturbing moments of emotional violence punctuating long stretches of calm and inertia. Yet Hogg, with her trademark stillness heavily inspired by Ozu and Akerman, doesn’t flinch.
As Julie and Anthony, Honor Swinton-Byrne (daughter of Tilda, who also co-stars here) and Tom Burke are terrific. Swinton-Byrne conveys naïveté wonderfully, especially in the early days of her characters entanglement with Anthony. Burke, meanwhile, doesn’t shy away from the difficult side of Anthony’s character. Anthony’s brutal callousness and narcissism could have overwhelmed the genuine moments of kindness, encouragement and affection he also displays. It’s touching to see Anthony gently challenging Julie’s views on art and life, and in these moments Burke shines just as much as he does when diving into darkness.
Hogg’s wide canvas allows her to find the grace notes which truly elevate The Souvenir. There’s a fetishistic interest in the physical properties of film – cutting, warping and grain – which vividly illustrate the process of curating memories even as they degrade before our eyes. It’s an apt metaphor for The Souvenir itself; a forensic examination of moments from the director’s past, viewed with an almost clinical detachment, that nonetheless accumulates into something greater. Surprisingly, the sequel is already on the horizon, and I can’t deny that I’m desperate to see more.