Happy autumn everybody! Though the seasons may not have officially ‘turned’ yet, there are certainly enough clues to show me that pumpkin spice is coming. The kids are back at school, the temperature is ever so slightly dropping, and most excitingly for me, the promised tone and quality of film releases is on the rise. With the summer blockbusters behind us, it’s time for cinemas to start ushering on the movies that are going to be staking claims during awards season. Would Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir be one such claim staker?
Set in early 1980s London, The Souvenir tells the story of Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), a privileged film school student who begins a relationship with Anthony (Tom Burke), a charismatic older man whose elusive, mysterious nature seems only to make him more desirable. The narrative takes the audience on a well paced tour through the relationship, building to a poignant conclusion as secrets are revealed and home truths are discovered that shake Julie out of her, up to this point, fairly innocent existence.
In a nutshell, The Souvenir is a film that tracks the rise and fall of a distressingly toxic relationship, and although it is no doubt powerful in parts, the truth is that it isn’t the most enjoyable or rewarding picture to watch. It feels very much like one of those classic cases of a film that is undeniably impressive and accomplished, but simultaneously a film that isn’t a particularly pleasurable experience to sit through. Engagement hinges around the viewer buying into the magnetism and besotted nature of the central relationship, because if you don’t buy why Julie would bother sticking around, then the film is going to be an excruciating couple of hours.
From a personal standpoint, there was just enough pull to keep me interested. There is definitely something vaguely hypnotic about the film, but as far as toxic relationship movies go it isn’t as quite intriguing as something like Phantom Thread, nor is it as empathic as something like An Education. The film is semi-based on writer/director Joanna Hogg’s own college experience, and interesting parallels can be found between this and Pedro Almodovar’s recent Pain And Glory. Both autobiographical stories about filmmakers with more than an air of dysfunction, both stories that feel incredibly personal bordering on intrusive, but whilst the Spanish picture punctuated the dysfunction with bursts of light and joy, The Souvenir seemingly starves the story of any emotional reprieve, instead preferring to stay in the bleak shade.
What will keep you engaged in the narrative even if you don’t buy the nature of the central relationship is the performances at the heart of the film. As Julie, Honor Swinton Byrne is fragile, inexperienced, insecure, pretty much the perfect embodiment of a person primed for suffering in a toxic relationship. Viewers will scream at her to leave, but the beauty of Swinton Byrne’s performance is that she makes each bad decision believable and authentic regardless of the opinions that you bring to the piece.
Tom Burke steals the show as the mysterious Anthony. Initially intriguing and charismatic, the true nature of the character’s problems begin to unravel and Burke absolutely nails playing a borderline unbearable human being. There is a fine line between assuredness and arrogance, and Burke skips from one side of the line to the other at will to staggeringly frustrating and fully intended effect. As a couple, it’s very much a ‘everybody knows they should not be together except themselves’ situation, and both actors play into this dynamic really well. They share an interesting spark that drives the film forward, but there is so much more going on than just a surface romance.
Tilda Swinton (Honor’s real life mother) gives an understated but strangely enjoyable performance as Julie’s on screen mother, an old fashioned kind of woman in a fast changing 1980s landscape, a character who has her suspicions and reservations but is seemingly stuck in her old reserved ways. The entire cast is a truly accomplished one, and performances from the top of the bill right down to the bottom help to add an extra sheen of quality to the picture.
Overall, The Souvenir is a personal and poignant drama that won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but is certainly finished to a high level of quality. Whether you enjoy the film or not will not be down to matters of execution, but more to matters of personal content preference. Interestingly, for a picture about a young woman at film school, it does somewhat feel like The Souvenir is the kind of movie that is more rewarding to discuss and analyse rather than simply sit back and watch. There’s nothing wrong with that in principle, but it just depends on how patient you are willing to be as a viewer. As it turns out, I was just about patient enough. There is a sequel already coming, and I’m definitely interested enough to see this story through.