by Ken Bakely
Austere yet pensive and encompassing, Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir is one of the most skillful and moving dramas of the year; there’s not a single moment that feels unnecessary, not a single plot choice that feels extraneous, and not a single aesthetic element that feels unconsidered. It all amounts to a character portrait and emotional journey that is by turns wringing in its focused nature and staggering in how it extrapolates to larger observations how individual identities are built. Though Hogg has said that the story – about Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) an aspiring filmmaker in 1980s London who becomes involved with Anthony (Tom Burke), a slightly older civil servant who turns out to have a drug addiction that leads to unpredictable and toxic behavior – is semi-autobiographical, the film is told without undue fatalism. We exist with Julie and her journey – her struggles and sense of discovery are equally apparent, as her existence as an artist begins to form amidst the instability brought by Anthony’s presence in her life. Parallel narratives emerge, with the beginnings of self-actualization taking shape. The overriding message of the film is clear: not only pointing out the myriad of ways that the people in our lives impact us, but that even unhealthy or transient relationships are indelible in a uniquely haunting way.
This isn’t to say that the film oversimplifies or overlooks the very real emotional trauma and manipulation that Anthony imposes on Julie. Hogg avoids any such miscommunication, and her efforts begin by making the film specifically focused on Julie as a person whose life in a constant state of flux, as new opportunities and perspectives move in. Everything we take away is inferred to a point, starting with what it means that the proceedings begin with Julie proclaiming that she wants to make films to escape the comfortable sociopolitical bubble that she has thus far lived in, exploring this in conversations with her family, particularly her mother, Rosalind (Tilda Swinton; Byrne is also her daughter in real life). By the end of The Souvenir, there’s less of a cushion that keeps her from seeing an external world, and the journey she has gone through to get there has been shattering and painful. From the outset, she sees Anthony’s outward presentation of sophistication and worldliness as a key to maturity; if only this relationship can work, she thinks, then it’s proof of greater things to come. But of course, that’s not what happens, and that realization comes at her at different speeds, with varying degrees of intensity. At each turn, the film reaffirms itself as a careful project, which plays as extremely personal for Hogg as someone who is recounting her own emotions and recollections, yet so accessible for viewers.
Much of this is thanks to the quality of the performances, though most notably Byrne’s, in what is astonishingly an acting debut. The somewhat internal nature of the character doesn’t keep her from delivering a wrenching turn. She imparts on Julie the kind of gradual, personal evolution that, much like in reality, isn’t linear or uniform in its rate of realization. Her work with Burke’s startlingly direct Anthony is stunning in the ways that their acting communicates, often without long stretches of dialogue or even many overt movements. The path from Anthony appearing as a collected and aspirational figure, to the consequences of his previously hidden addiction crashing full fledged into both of their lives, is devoid of any overly movie-like flourishes or telegraphing. Sure, the indicators are there early on, but the bubble Julie has acknowledged in respect to her art has also manifested here, as it keeps her from noticing how many of his explanations for his long absences or erratic behavior never make sense. Hogg’s sparing style – a short scene here, an impressionistic nature shot there – is hard to predict in the moment, but assembles, over time, a rhythm of sorts that borders on the abstract. Yet The Souvenir is consistent in tone, and always with a sense of control over the boundaries of its world and storytelling devices.
The film leaves us on another note of change, as Julie prepares to move into a radically changed future once again. It’s only somewhat pertinent to note that a title card at the end of the credits announces a sequel in development, because the film feels like a great revelation all its own and an important case for its own philosophy of filmmaking. Its ability to be many things at once manages, in some strange and mysterious way, to let the movie exist both as a message about recounting past experiences and as an already-set narrative that will soon exist as part of a larger continuum. It would have been so easy to present the proceedings at some distant value, but the miracle of this movie is that Hogg knows how to put us there, in these places, and present us with a meticulous conceptualization that’s nearly paradoxical, one again revealing the film’s ability to work on multiple levels and readings. To watch The Souvenir, and see it all happening at once, is a layered experience full of conflicting thoughts and reactions, but we’re never lost. It’s that ability to analyze and search that makes Hogg’s art all the more involving and meaningful.