Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at this years Sundance Film Festival. The Souvenir feels like Joanna Hogg’s most personal work to date, using the medium of film to explore the intensity and naivety of first love. Creating a palette of emotions that reflect the manipulation, unconditional love and acceptance of relationships that carry darkness and light in equal measure. While the wealth and privilege of life provides no escape from the challenges of love in its many guises.
Set against the backdrop of a changing 1980s Britain with IRA terror and a growing class divide. Julie (Honor Swinton Bryne) is a young filmmaker with a desire to film situations and themes that go beyond her privileged upbringing and life. Her topics of study a world far away from her flat in Knightsbridge, shopping at Harrods and parents of farming wealth. While in turn Julie’s naivety of a changing Britain plays to a wider lack of insight into why she wishes to focus on themes of industrial decay within her work. Her passion for filmmaking almost feeling like an attempt to reconcile her privilege within a wider social landscape.
During a house party, Julie meets Anthony (Tom Burke), a charming yet mysterious civil servant. Exuding confidence and arrogance in equal measure. Anthony is a walking enigma, yet also utterly captivating to Julie. His knowledge, critical thinking and stature both enthralling and aloof in equal measure.
As their relationship grows, Anthony acts as a sounding board for Julie’s film project ideas. Slowly becoming integral to her life. While her naivety and his worldly understanding sparking a delicate sexual relationship. However, Anthony hides dark personal secrets, under a cloak of apparent wealth and intelligence. Creating a relationship of toxicity and love that envelopes Julie and their respective families.
The Souvenir is melancholic filmmaking, slowly building a character study of a women learning the harsh truths of a relationship. A study that has you internally shouting at Julie in frustration as her privileged lifestyle appears to block her common sense. With her frailty maddening, as you continue to hope she might find the strength needed to solve her existential crisis. This is not a direct criticism of newcomer Honor Swinton Byrne. But more of a script that leaves her character stripped of any fight, in favour of total subservience to her lifestyle. While with Anthony’s we have a fascinating portrayal of deception and control from Tom Burke. But one that feels wrapped in so many layers of privilege and self riotousness that is difficult to build a sense of care.
However, there are glimmers of beauty in Hogg’s depiction of a slowly unravelling relationship. With both cinematography and direction shining with authenticity. While family dynamics are beautifully constructed, the urgency and need of parental protection playing against the fear of letting your children go. Allowing them to learn, experience, and understand the pain of life. Tilda Swinton perfectly encapsulating the push and pull of parental protection and love versus independence and pain.
Despite this there are elements of The Souvenir that simply leave a slightly sour taste in the mouth of the viewer. As we are guided toward the excesses of 1980s privilege, while also being asked to feel empathy toward the characters. And while this is not impossible, the naivety and choices of Julie simply create frustration. While the darkness of Anthony is shrouded in a cloak of superiority.