Director: Joanna Hogg
Year of release: 2019
Running time: 2 hours
by Jericho Cerrona
Writer-director Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir is based in part on her own experiences as an artist coming of age in Margaret Thatcher’s England during the 1980s, but it never feels personal in ways many autobiographical works do. Instead of taking the fictional story of London filmmaking student Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) and imposing her own hard rules onto it, Hogg allows for the narrative to take a turn into startling ambiguity. This includes Julie’s romantic entanglement with Anthony (Tom Burke), an upper class older man who initially appears dismissive, but who nonetheless has a certain allure she’s drawn to.
The Souvenir at first appears to be a doomed romance film; wherein a couple goes through the ups and downs of cohabitation while learning unfortunate truths about one another in the process. However, Hogg only uses familiar tropes—self-actualization, drug addiction revelations, the pull of a toxic partner—in order to fracture them into a mosaic of uncertainty. There’s no clean character arc for Julie where she realizes her inherent worth as an artist and breaks free from Anthony’s gaslighting hold. Irrational romances do exist, and even if we can chalk most of Anthony’s behavior up to self-loathing and neediness, Burke delivers a multi-faceted performance hinting at genuine vulnerability here. Meanwhile, Swinton Byrne is a complete marvel (thespian genes surely inherited from her mother, Tilda Swinton, who also appears as her onscreen mum), delivering a performance which hinges on nervousness, hesitation, and emotional honesty.
Hogg shoots everything mostly in medium/wide shots on grainy 16mm, and as such, the film may feel too detached for some viewers. However, the aesthetic approach is indicative of an artist revisiting her past and wanting to stand at a distance; perhaps for fear of contaminating the purity of this time and place. The results are a film fusing the personal and the fictional with grace and subtlety.