You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘The Souvenir’

Honor Swinton-Byrne and Tom Burke give piercing performances in British auteur Joanna Hogg's brilliant, self-effacing memory piece.

Joanna Hogg
Honor Swinton-Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton

Rated R  1 hour 54 minutes

Early in “The Souvenir,” over drinks and and a current of passive-aggressive flirting, two soon-to-be lovers rehash the old life-versus-art debate. One, a filmmaker, is anxiously preoccupied with honoring reality as faithfully as possible. The other, an observer, all but rolls his eyes: “We don’t want to see life played out as it is, we want to see it as it is experienced in this soft machine.”

Joanna Hogg takes a little of both positions in her rich, exquisitely reflective fourth feature — a work of memoir shattered and reassembled into a universally moving, truthful fiction. Achingly well-observed in its study of a young artist inspired, derailed and finally strengthened by a toxic relationship, it is at once the coming-of-age story of many women and a specific creative manifesto for one of modern British cinema’s most singular writer-directors. A satisfying rebound from the precious insularity of 2014’s “Exhibition,” Hogg’s most ambitious work to date also looks to be her most broadly exposed, with Martin Scorsese lending his clout as executive producer, Tilda Swinton bringing marquee appeal to a pitch-perfect ensemble, and A24 having already snapped up U.S. distribution rights. It’s a good time to get on board: “The Souvenir Part II,” with Robert Pattinson joining the project, is already in the works.

Since arriving fully formed on the scene with her eerily immaculate debut “Unrelated” in 2007, Hogg has accrued major auteur status in her homeland while remaining something of an arthouse secret abroad. For newcomers to her work, “The Souvenir” provides an ideal entry point: Lucidly shot by David Raedeker, it’s poised halfway between the hushed domestic naturalism of her first two features and the more experimental provocations of “Exhibition.” Still, there’s a sinuous, elastic tone here that’s excitingly new to her oeuvre, as brittle social satire gives way to romantic whimsy and swollen-hearted emotionalism. Even when “The Souvenir” strays into heightened territory, the messiness and inconsistency of real life lie at its heart.

That’s a trick that 24-year-old film school student Julie (Honor Swinton-Byrne, daughter of Tilda) has yet to learn, as the film opens with her earnest pitch for a planned graduation feature. A dour-sounding kitchen-sink drama set in the working-class shipyards of Sunderland, a milieu far removed from her comfy upper-crust upbringing in southeast England, it’s met with limited enthusiasm. It’s the early 1980s, and while Julie is compassionately driven by her liberal resistance to Thatcher-era inequality, she also hasn’t quite learned which stories are hers to tell — partly because, from her expensive, semi-bohemian apartment in London’s moneyed Knightsbridge district, none of the stories in her immediate eyeline seems terribly urgent.

Enter raffish, damaged Anthony (Tom Burke) to complicate her narrative. A pinstripe-clad Foreign Office dogsbody with a passion for art history, he exudes a precociously worldly, sophisticated air that turns out largely to be stale cigarette smoke and mirrors. Julie herself is too socially and romantically inexperienced to perceive the range and extent of his addictions and deceptions, though to any onlooker, he’s a walking red flag in a dicky-bow tie, clinging for dear life to a bright young woman ill-equipped to support that level of need. Joe Jackson’s “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” is a brazenly on-the-nose music cue for Hogg to deploy at this point, but it speaks for all of Julie’s friends and family too politely reserved to ask that very question. (Save for one insufferably self-regarding filmmaker acquaintance, played in a riotous cameo by Richard Ayoade, who frames the query in different terms: “I’m trying to work out where you two tessellate here,” he drawls.)

If Anthony is a fraud, however, the love between them is entirely, desperately real, to the point of mutual destruction, and Hogg — drawing on her own experiences as a naive film student — portrays it with skin-prickling tenderness. That the audience, like Julie, is caught in agonized loop between wanting this hopeless relationship to end itself or mend itself comes down to the intensely interlocked performances of Burke and Swinton-Byrne. They sell you on the couple’s sensual and intellectual chemistry even as they occasionally stare at other in raging incomprehension, as if each facing an extra-terrestrial impostor: “The Souvenir,” more than many an odd-couple romance, gets the petrifying alienation that sometimes comes with profound intimacy.

Burke is entirely extraordinary as an internally collapsing man trying to hold everything together with expensively tailored privilege. His face sometimes forgets its default above-it-all sneer to reveal a terrified, boyish void, while his best line readings — “Sincerity isn’t enough,” he tells Julie at one point — trail off from arch confidence into plunging, involuntary sadness. In her first adult role, a decade after appearing alongside Swinton in “I Am Love,” Swinton-Byrne beautifully plays a formless woman at varying stages of self-awareness, her backbone forming before our eyes as her heart splits into fragments. Swinton, of course, plays her mother once more, this time with a droll sense of bourgeois ineffectiveness: “It’s terribly complicated,” she simpers as dinner-table conversation turns to then-topical IRA bombing campaigns, in a tone that betrays no understanding of life outside her cream cashmere world at all.

As acutely observed a period piece as “The Souvenir” is — in recreating the apartment of Hogg’s youth, Stéphane Collonge masterful production design nestles a world of transitional details into its oatmeal ’80s surfaces — its self-effacing class politics could hardly feel more 2019. As Julie wrestles at once to check her privilege and assert her individuality, Hogg herself tacitly addresses critical commentary about the genteel white backdrop of her work to date, and her film shifts its stance in the process: What begins as a witty, piquant dissection of “rich people problems” blossoms, in time with its painfully maturing protagonist, into more forgiving, devastating exploration of loss, both of others and of the self. “I don’t want to live my life in that bubble,” Julie admits later, as she pitches her misbegotten Sunderland film to another skeptical panel; in this warm, lovely shiver of a film, Hogg brings her fragile alter ego to the very brink of bursting it.

Film Review: 'The Souvenir'

Reviewed at Curzon Soho, London, Jan. 16, 2018. (In Sundance Film Festival — World Cinema Dramatic Competition; Berlin Film Festival — Panorama.) Running time: 114 MIN.

Production: (U.K.) An A24 release (in U.S.) of an A24, BBC Films, British Film Institute presentation of a JWH Films production. (International sales: Protagonist Pictures, London.) Producers: Luke Schiller, Joanna Hogg. Executive producers: Lizzie Francke, Rose Garnett, Martin Scorsese, Emma Tillinger Koskoff, Michael Wood, Dave Bishop, Andrew Starke.

Crew: Director, screenplay: Joanna Hogg. Camera (color): David Raedeker. Editor: Helle Le Fevre.

With: Honor Swinton-Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton, Richard Ayoade, Jack McMullen, Frankie Wilson, Jaygann Ayeh, Janet Etuk, Hannah Ashby Ward, Chyna Terrelonge-Vaughan, Jack W. Gregory.

More Film

  • Kiernan Shipka and Ross LynchMTV Movie

    MTV Movie & TV Awards: What You Didn't See on TV

    Many of the biggest stars in movies and television — including Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Jada Pinkett Smith, Kiernan Shipka, Sandra Bullock, Tessa Thompson and Brie Larson — came together to present and receive honors at the 2019 MTV Movie & TV Awards, hosted by “Shazam!” star Zachary Levi. And while non-attendees are able to enjoy [...]

  • Johnny BananasMTV Movie & TV Awards,

    'The Challenge' Veteran Crashes MTV Awards Acceptance Speech; Cut From Broadcast

    Johnny “Bananas” Devenanzio pulled a Kanye West at Saturday’s taping of the MTV Movie & TV awards when “Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta” won over “The Challenge” in the Reality Royalty category. However, viewers didn’t get to see it. Producers of the show cut out Devenanzio’s speech from Monday’s airing, after the reality star took [...]

  • Zachary LeviMTV Movie & TV Awards,

    MTV Movie & TV Awards Winners: The Complete List

    The MTV Movie & TV Awards returned to television Monday, with host Zachary Levi and a number of pop culture favorites. Dominating this year’s nominations with four apiece were front runners “Avengers: Endgame,” which took home the evening’s best movie award, and “Game of Thrones,” which won best show. The Oscar-nominated documentary “RBG” also scored [...]

  • Olivia Wilde Jon Ham Richard Jewell

    Olivia Wilde, Jon Hamm Join Clint Eastwood's 'Richard Jewell' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Olivia Wilde and Jon Hamm have joined the cast of Clint Eastwood’s already star-studded drama “Richard Jewell.” Paul Walter Hauser is set to star as the titular Jewell in Warner Bros.’ pic alongside Sam Rockwell as Jewell’s attorney and Kathy Bates as Jewell’s mother. More Reviews Off Broadway Review: 'A Strange Loop' TV Review: 2019 [...]

  • Where the Wind Blows

    Hong Kong's 'Where the Wind Blows' Sidesteps Protests For China Promo

    Hong Kong film director Philip Yung and his cast were in Shanghai on Monday to promote their upcoming film “Where the Wind Blows.” They revealed new details while cautiously sidestepping — for the most part — the awkward issue of last week’s massive civil protests in Hong Kong against a controversial bill that would have [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content