Director of the amazing Unrelated (2007), Archipelago (2010) and Exhibition (2013) (all of which have gone under-the-radar, particularly in the US) Joanna Hogg now returns with the eagerly anticipated The Souvenir Part One. Those familiar with her work will be used to her slow-paced, but incredibly, painfully truthful depictions of family life and relationships. Hogg’s films draw the viewer in with their authenticity – her loose improvisational collaborations with her actors are reminiscent of Mike Leigh’s best work. Those who mainly know Tom Hiddleston for Loki would find these three films revelatory – his performances are genuine, vulnerable and demonstrate the range his is capable of. The Souvenir is Hogg’s most personal film to date – it is based on her own life as a film student in the 1980s and on a relationship she had at the time.
Tilda Swinton’s daughter Honor Swinton-Byrne is making her debut in a main role playing the character of Julie, who, at the start of the film is planning on making a film about a boy and his mother in Sunderland. At a party, she meets Anthony (Tom Burke) – an older man who works for the Foreign Office, who on the surface appears stable, professional, well-educated and rich. They start a relationship and small warning signs appear, like him asking Julie if he can borrow a few pounds before leaving her flat. At a dinner party with a film student played by Richard Ayoade, Julie realises that Anthony is a drug addict. Julie’s relationship with Anthony starts to affect her film course – she stops turning up to college as much and her confidence is undermined by both Anthony and some of the men on her course. Anthony whisks her away to Venice for one particularly memorable sequence, but the cracks are still there and things unravel to their inevitable conclusion. Tilda Swinton plays Julie’s mother in the film, a small but important supporting role.
The plot is the least important aspect of this film – it is a backdrop on which everything else is hung. The 1980s era is subtly evoked through costume and soundtrack, but not laid on thickly or rammed down the throat. Before going to Venice, Anthony has a 1940s style suit tailor-made for Julie and I love that this film acknowledges this connection between these two eras, which can be seen in the original Blade Runner and beyond. Anthony was a History of Art student before becoming a civil servant and art is one of the biggest motifs that runs through The Souvenir – there are multiple scenes set in stately homes and galleries. Anthony introduces Julie to the painting from which the film gets its name, which features a woman scratching the initials of her lover onto a tree, just as Anthony permanently scars Julie’s heart.
Another motif that runs through The Souvenir is the punctuation of letters from Anthony to Julie, which are read in voice-over by Swinton-Byrne. This choice – for it be her voice reading his words shows that this film is about Julie – it is her perspective, her prism through which we see everything. There are multiple times when Julie makes questionable choices. Anthony repeatedly treats her badly, only for her to end up apologising to him. However, we are seeing a genuine and raw whole picture of a relationship between a young woman and an older man. There are times when Julie does and says things that would probably make her older self (the real Hogg) cringe looking back, but to leave that stuff out would be painting over the cracks. The letters are read out over a tableau of a landscape which features three trees – we see the changing seasons as we go through this relationship with Julie.
The cinematography throughout is absolutely stunning and stays with the viewer long after the film has ended. The framing and composition is exquisite, with frequent use of door frames and mirrors to show the changing dynamics between Julie and Anthony and Julie and her mother. The Venice hotel room scene is jaw-droppingly beautiful. There is classical sculpture and artwork in the room and at the centre, a mirror – in the mirror we see Julie and Anthony at a point of crisis in their relationship. This framing – showing them as small and surrounded by antiquity – puts their relationship in context. It will be fleeting, but it will have an lasting effect on Julie. Whenever we see Julie directing one of her films at film school, the blocking and lighting is reminiscent of a renaissance painting. It is frequently dark, with black theatre flats, but the faces are beautifully lit. This emphasises Julie’s discomfort when there are cameramen arguing with her direction or when she is struggling with decisions. The final few shots are meticulously composed and flawlessly executed, with just a few images Hogg encapsulates the themes of the whole film and distills them into art. The fact that so many of the shots mirror classical paintings is incredibly clever, but not done in an ostentatious way at all. It is the perfect marriage of subject and form. Like everything about the film it is understated and it is on reflection that the level of deliberate construction becomes apparent.
As with all of the 1980s references, the politics and social issues of the era are inter-weaved with the lightest of touch. They are viewed through the lens of the privileged characters, who make many tone-deaf, out-of-touch comments. Julie epitomizes the over-keen, hyper-aware middle-class student who wants to use her privilege to draw attention to social issues. Anthony is very much the upper-class Oxbridge gentleman on the surface, but is hiding his illness from the world. The very real threat of IRA bombs in London (something it’s easy to forget 30 years later) is one of the backdrops.
It will probably come as no surprise that Swinton-Byrne is phenomenal, but for her to carry the entire film on her shoulders (when she is so inexperienced) is still an incredible achievement. She is reminiscent of Rebecca Hall. The trust and the relationship she must have built with Hogg is obvious on-screen and came across after the Sundance Premiere as well. The excitement that Hogg and Swinton-Byrne have to continue Julie’s story in Part Two is palpable. Tom Burke has had an interesting career, from Only God Forgives to The Musketeers and many other television series. He was not an obvious choice for Hogg to work with, but he rises to the challenge of the improvisational style very well. It is nice to see a toned-down performance from Ayoade in a pivotal scene. Tilda’s scenes with her daughter are incredibly tender and touching, particularly towards the end.
Joanna Hogg is one of the best writer-directors working today and she deserves to be much more well-known than she is. She will certainly have the legacy of Mike Leigh, but people need to wake up to her and appreciate the fact that she is making such exciting, vital work now. The Souvenir was my most-anticipated film of Sundance 2019 and I was not disappointed. The more I think about it, the more I fall in love with it. I am eagerly anticipating Part Two and the wait is going to be unbearable. I implore you to seek out not just The Souvenir, but Hogg’s earlier work as well.