The Souvenir

Review by Rich Cline | 4/5

The Souvenir
dir-scr Joanna Hogg
prd Joanna Hogg, Luke Schiller
with Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton, James Dodds, Alice McMillan, Barbara Peirson, Richard Ayoade, Ariane Labed, Hannah Ashby Ward, Jack McMullen, Frankie Wilson, Janet Etuk
release US 17.May.19,
UK 30.Aug.19
19/UK BBC 1h54

burke swinton ayoade

See also:
The Souvenir Part II (2021)

burke and byrne
Filmmaker Joanna Hogg's movies certainly aren't easy. She expertly exposes the brittle arrogance of British society, telling stories that are anchored in a stiff-upper-lip. The posh people in her movies are reluctant to let anyone know what they think or feel, and yet Hogg beautifully slices through their cool-but-shaky exteriors. And this film clearly has autobiographical elements, which makes it achingly personal as well.
In the early 1980s, Julie (Swinton Byrne) is a film student in London, living in a pricey flat in Knightsbridge. She takes art seriously, but clearly hasn't had much life experience outside her pampered childhood with doting mother Rosalind (real-life mother Swinton). Then Julie meets Anthony (Burke), who works in the Foreign Office and has the same privately educated pedigree as Julie. Their relationship is cold and stiff, just like their parents'. And since they never truly share themselves with each other, Julie is wilfully ignorant of the fact that Anthony is a heroin addict.
The film is a series of short scenes offering glimpses into Julie's life. Since everything is under the surface, it's tricky to work out what's going on or what people are thinking. What emerges is a powerful portrait of a young woman caught in a toxic relationship: she knows she needs to get out but can't help being drawn in even further. A range of side characters offer observations and even warnings along the way, countered by her pinched upper-crust stoicism.

Swinton Byrne is excellent, underplaying Julie with a riveting attention to detail that allows the audience to see right through her. She's basically an empty shell looking for depth in all the wrong places. Opposite her, Burke delivers an astonishingly complex turn as a plummy young man who shifts from haughty to desperate in a split second. It's easy to see why Anthony's charm has beguiled Julie, allowing her to ignore the warning signs. And of course Swinton is simply perfect as Julie's matter-of-fact mother.

Hogg's films reside in that rarified English upper-middle class, so most viewers will look at these people and wonder why they don't snap out of their apparent hypnosis. And it's rather infuriating to see how everything important is buried under a sheen of indifference, including any understanding of global affairs. But this kind of movie helps explain how a bumbling liar like Boris Johnson can rise to the top of British politics. And why people in all classes find themselves in relationships that simply don't make sense.

cert 15 themes, language, sexuality 18.Jun.19

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© 2019 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall