VOD film review: The Souvenir
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Charlotte Harrison | On 30, Aug 2019
Director: Joanna Hogg
Cast: Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke
There’s little doubt that The Souvenir will divide audiences. The films of British writer-director Joanna Hogg have consistently focused on the middle class, with Hogg playing the role of exposing insider. Her camera lens placed voyeuristically among them, she catches the intricacies and minutiae of their lives, which seem a world far away from our own. Her characters experience a degree and variant of ennui that is most likely far removed from our own day-to-day lives too, yet is presented in a manner that somehow makes the abstract accessible. Or, at the very least, more comprehensible.
This is more than true of The Souvenir, a semi-fictionalised version of Hogg’s life. In the early 80s she was a young film student in an increasingly destructive relationship with an older man. In The Souvenir, Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) is a young film student in an increasingly destructive relationship with an older man called Anthony (Tom Burke). Hogg has revealed in interviews that much of the film is grounded in her truth and her memories of the time, although the identity of the older man remains undisclosed. She has, however, said that Burke’s portrayal of him is immensely reflective of the man who consumed that part of her life.
For consumption is what Anthony specialises in; consumption of life, of substances and – whether he intends it or not – of people. He enters Julie’s life in a rather nondescript way, at a party at her Knightbridge flat, but little else about him is nondescript. He’s a hurricane made up of pretension and artifice, quickly sweeping her into the chaos. But, as they’re middle/upper class, that chaos is quiet, concealed and scarcely referred to – never in polite conversation and only ever shrouded in euphemism.
Burke is astonishingly brilliant in the role. It’s clear from the outset that Anthony is awful, a walking red flag who will only bring toxicity to those he meets. He’s utterly ludicrous and repellent, a total user and abuser. Yet there’s a smarmy charm about him that draws in Julie and us, albeit reluctantly, to him. He brings her opportunities, life experiences and makes her feel seen. He also questions her and all that she has known previously – he provides a viewpoint that clashes and collides with her own. He says things such as ‘we don’t get to see life as is, we want to see it as it is experienced’ and ‘We can all be authentic, but what’s it all for’. We see the artifice; Julie does not.
We see, or can at least guess at, the truth hovering under the surface that Julie refuses to see or acknowledge. Swinton Byrne does an impeccable job at this, playing Julie with a fragile futility that feels painfully real. There’s an inevitability to all that she does and the parts of her that get retracted whenever Anthony is near.
All of this is played out with some truly beautifully rendered cinematography and a brilliant soundtrack. Julie’s love, yearning and heartbreak are scored to The Psychedelic Furs (Love My Way), Joe Jackson (Is She Really Going Out With Him) and The Pretenders (2,000 miles) to name but three. Each song makes an invaluable contribution to this aching articulation of dignified destruction.