The Souvenir review – sad romance is impossible to shake

Joanna Hogg's achingly sincere and autobiographical fourth film is a dreamy love story that echoes with truth

In her first two features, Unrelated and Archipelago, Joanna Hogg used long, unbroken takes and minimal camera movement to tell stories about middle-class people on holidays gone awry. Channeling her hero Yasujirō Ozu, it often felt like the film crew had abandoned the set and left the cameras running – an invitation for us to simply hang there and observe the private interactions of those caught in the frame.

This detached approach meant Hogg’s characters never felt judged, and it’s one she carries through to her new film, The Souvenir, a staggeringly rich and nuanced portrait of youth that also marks the point at which her talents have culminated in something genuinely timeless; a film to ponder endlessly, and – rendered with seemingly infinite details – perhaps even obsess over. Whilst Hogg’s previous efforts were highly personal affairs, of course, this one is heavily autobiographical. It aches with memory.

The Souvenir – set in 1980s London – is essentially a romance, though it’s purposely devoid of the pleasures we tend to associate with new love. Julie, played with a quiet sadness by Honor Swinton Byrne (daughter of Tilda, who stars here as her mother), is an utterly sincere film school student desperate to escape her privileged upbringing with a film about the working class. As if out of nowhere she finds herself involved with the evasive, mysterious, and cutting Anthony (Tom Burke), an older man who is perpetually hunched over, clinging to a cigarette. Even at the start their relationship never seems quite right. We glimpse small moments of joy, yes, but these are intercut with arguments and bickering. Then come the lies, and the stealing, and a more sinister truth begins to emerge.

The Souvenir essentially sets out to chronicle the disappointments, regrets, and moments of fleeting happiness inherent to a person’s formative years. Hogg understands how these experiences – depicted here with an astonishing earnestness – have the power to shape the rest of your life. As such, The Souvenir – based on Hogg’s own time as a film student has the air of an autobiographical novel. As Julie juggles school, relationships, and family over the course of the film’s admittedly slow-paced two-hour runtime, Hogg – careful not to pass judgment on anyone – refuses to paint events in black or white. Instead she leaves it to the viewer to fill in the gaps and come to their own conclusions.

Honor Swinton Byrne gives a natural and understated performance as Julie, appropriate for somebody in the midst of finding themselves, but it is Tom Burke as Anthony, I think, who gives the most interesting turn. Resigned to life with a speaking voice that sounds like a perpetual yawn, he comes over as a truly original creation – and that is, of course, the way it had to be in order to sell the attraction and convince us that Julie would be magnetically drawn, time and time again, in spite of her doubts. As if channeling Anthony’s uneasy presence, the film is inflicted with a lingering anxiety: a sense of malaise infuses every scene, making The Souvenir difficult to “enjoy” on a conventional level (this is a film, after all, that manages to makes a spontaneous trip to Venice look depressing). And as Anthony, a man who may or may not be who he says he is (his job at the Foreign Office is never corroborated), becomes increasingly more problematic, the film – muted in browns, whites, and greys – wallows in a dream-like melancholy. All the colour seems to have drained out of life.

Reaching the end of The Souvenir almost feels like surviving your own personal trauma. You don’t need to have experienced what Julie experiences here to understand the depth of her emotions, and that is, perhaps – in spite of its autobiographical nature – the film’s great achievement: a universality. But it’s also a blunt work that demands patience, and one likely to disappoint in the aftermath of a single viewing. Yet it gets under your skin and stays there. Like a souvenir, its existence continually draws your memory back.


By: Tom Barnard

Get The Souvenir showtimes in London.

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