I went into Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir completely blind, not knowing a thing about it, including who its writer/director was, whom I was shamefully unacquainted with. It turned out to be the best possible way to experience the film, which details the coming of age of a filmmaker in Thatcher-era England. The Souvenir features some of the year’s best performances, including a star-making turn by Honor Swinton Byrne.
Byrne stars as Julie (notably, her initials are the same as Hogg’s), a young woman who has entered a film school program, aided by her mother (Byrne’s real-life mother, Tilda Swinton). Though she’s initially filled with energy and excitement about the possibility of making a working-class drama about a boy obsessed with his mother, her personal life soon threatens to overtake her professional aspirations. After slowly being seduced by the patronizing Anthony (Tom Burke), who may or may not work for the foreign office, Julie slowly retreats from her studies. When she finally gets the chance to direct her own student film, she’s overwhelmed by thoughts of her lover, who is slowly being swallowed alive by drug addiction.
A film with these plot outlines would normally be filled with violent outburst and screaming. There would almost certainly be a scene where Anthony, in a state of desperation, would pull out a gun and rob someone to feed his habit, with disastrous results. Blessedly, none of those things happen. It’s hard to say how much of the story is autobiographical, but it’s probably safe to assume that none of those things happened in Hogg’s real life. Still, The Souvenir’s devotion to French filmmakers (most obviously Eric Rohmer) also precludes that path. Hogg favors an often static camera, using slow movements that allow us to forget it’s even there. She brings us in closer proximity with Byrne, who is absolutely fascinating at every moment.
It’s a given that every great film will have some line readings that seem a bit off, yet Byrne never seems anything other than totally natural. She has a constant sense of veracity that might accompany a non-professional actor, but every word she speaks rolls off her tongue smoothly. Burke often matches her, and the strength of his performance (and Hogg’s writing) is that we eventually forget his lecturing ways as his relationship with Julie progresses. His failings are numerous, and he abuses her trust repeatedly, but he also changes in the way any human being might.
Hogg shot The Souvenir on film, and it’s one of her smartest choices. There’s a noticeable grain to most of the images, giving them the air of a photograph that has been discovered after moldering away in a box for decades. It feels as if we’ve been given a private audience to Hogg’s own thoughts and memories, and it’s utterly thrilling.