Director and screenwriter Joanna Hogg’s 2019 film has the makings of an award-winner, which it has been: two fresh-faced actors who know what they’re doing, one with a luminous pedigree (her mother is Tilda Swinton); a female director with a following; a coming-to-maturity story featuring the untrustworthy lover; a film-within-a-film to seduce critics fascinated by their own media; the promise of Part Two (now showing in theaters in limited release) to keep audiences interested.
Swinton’s daughter, Honor Swinton Byrne, whose acting experience is brief and has been tied to her mother (Swinton has a minor role in this film too), comes into her own as Julie, a 25-year-old film student groping her way toward adulthood. There are few minutes in the film where Julie is not present, and Byrne is up to the task. Equally engaging is Tom Burke (who played Orson Welles in 2020’s “Mank”), the suave and seemingly upper-class foreign service officer, Anthony. He’s as typical a British boys’ school product as she is the artsy film school type (or, as Anthony’s friend calls her, a “trainee Rotarian”).
They work as a couple. In one of the most engaging scenes, the two playfully reenact the bed barrier ritual from “It Happened One Night.” Anthony piles up Julie’s stuffed animals to create the “wall” between them, mimicking the blanket hung between Clark Gable’s and Claudette Colbert’s twin beds in the 1934 Oscar winner.
At the beginning of “The Souvenir” we see Julie articulating her desire to make a film about Sunderland, a port city in Northeast England that was once a thriving manufacturing area, plagued by unemployment and despair in this 1980s setting. When asked by her film school teacher (in one of several clunky, expository scenes) why she wants to make a narrative film—featuring a dying mother and highly dependent son—that seems so far from her own life, a life without “real” experiences, she explains that’s her precise desire: to explore experiences that are not her own.
Anthony questions Julie about the “reality” of the film she wants to make. She claims the lives of these fictional characters are “the lives of real people.” “Are they more real than me? Am I more real than you?” asks Anthony. Julie: “No. I think we’re all equal in that. I think we’re all as real as each other. There’s no competition.” Later he challenges her, “You’re lost. And you’ll always be lost.”
The “real” film project appears to go by the wayside while Julie is finally introduced to a world not her own, that of her partner, Anthony. Anthony’s secret—he’s a heroin addict—is revealed to Julie all at once, by a friend of his, another filmmaker. His drug use could produce tension and narrative complexity, but it does not; Julie, exceptionally naïve, seems to accept his addiction without question. We’re left with the problem of why Julie loves or needs Anthony (he’s confident, seductive, elite, a good sexual partner), but this angle, too, fails to produce the suspense and drama the film requires.
The Sunderland project abandoned, the film-within-a-film becomes one of fellow film-student actors reading what seem to be lines of classic drama and poetry. How this is more authentic than the Sunderland film is never revealed. In another scene, film students articulate why a film should not show everything, leaving the viewer to imagine the action taking place—the Hitchcock “Psycho” shower-scene principle. Unfortunately, Hogg’s script tells us too much in some places (film professors articulate Julie’s changing goals, the preachy Hitchcock lesson, an unnecessary shot of Anthony’s drug paraphernalia) and not enough in others (what IS the film she’s trying to make, and why does it matter?).
In an unfortunate case of life imitating art, director Hogg resembles her protagonist, who can’t decide what sort of film to make or what its central issues might be. Julie doesn’t know whether to interrogate social class (the Sunderland idea), toy with the fashion industry, or indulge the puerile literary ambitions of her film school classmates. Lacking a coherent sense of self, she’s incapable of moving forward and constructing a coherent film.
Like Julie, Hogg has lots of ideas that she flirts with in the larger film, including the nature of the attraction between Julie and Anthony, problems of authenticity and addiction, the role of parents in the creation of their offspring (we meet both sets of parents), the challenges of film school, the concept and role of the film-within-the-film. Some of these are more important than others for Hogg and this film, but none is sufficiently deepened to the point of becoming compelling; there is too much going on, too many distractions. “The Souvenir” is entertaining because of its two principals and their fine acting, but ultimately disappointing in its failure to produce and develop dramatic issues and situations we want to care about. At its core (if it has one), it’s a traditional story—young woman falls in love with seductive older man with a secret—traditionally told.
Stars: 2.5 (out of 4)
Director: Joanna Hogg
Starring: Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton
Other Awards: 7 wins and 35 other nominations
Runtime: 120 minutes
Country: United Kingdom, United States
Availability: For streaming, rental or purchase on multiple sites, including Amazon Prime, Google Play and others; see JustWatch here.
Lead image: In one of the most engaging scenes, the two [Anthony, Tom Burke, and Julie, Honor Swinton Byrne] playfully reenact the bed barrier ritual from “It Happened One Night.”