Sydney Film Festival Review: The Souvenir (UK, 2019) is one of the best films of 2019

Before I start off this review, it must be said that I have not seen any of the works by director Joanna Hogg. It wasn’t due to any prior indiscretions, rather my personal ignorance. But upon hearing the massive amounts of praise from festivals and critics all over the world for her latest film, The Souvenir, as well as being privy to the talent involved, it was time to visit her work for the first time.

Set in the early 80’s, The Souvenir stars Honor Swinton Byrne as Julie, a taciturn, yet ambitious film student who is keen to make her very first film, which is about working-class communities in Sunderland, despite her lack of articulation in saying that it is not a documentary. Upon a moment of chance, she encounters Anthony (Tom Burke), a mysterious and slightly older employee at the Foreign Office, and the two strike up a certain chemistry.

Showing attentiveness and challenging her ideas, Anthony manages to court Julie and through sharing certain common interests like cinema and art. Over a certain amount of time, he seamlessly becomes a part of her daily life and moves in with her. Through the eyes of Julie, her relationship with Anthony seems quite tumultuous and exciting at first, but over time, some signs of unease enter the picture — Anthony often asks Julie for money; he has mysterious bruises; his absences become longer over time — all of which culminate into something upsetting that will put their relationship to the test.

If The Souvenir is anything to come by in terms of filmmaking quality, I will have to check out the rest of director Hogg’s filmography. The Souvenir is a captivating, empathetic look at a young, blossoming and gradually toxic relationship that is sure to speak to audiences who has ever been in a romantic connection before.

The story is said to be partially autobiographical, as the character of Julie is Hogg via proxy. On that note, Hogg’s direction is remarkably assured, as her understated handling of the story conveys a lop-sided balance of both appealing nostalgia and inevitable reality. The subplot of Julie struggling to decide whether her film is a documentary or a fictional narrative complements the storytelling, as it blurs the line between fantasy and reality, as well as providing a metatextual feel that is a critique about Hogg’s own past that reveals layers of the characterizations — how Julie and Anthony look at each other as opposed to who they really are inside.

David Raedeker lenses the film in a soft, hazy manner that adds credence, in that the past is not as clear as it once was; and the choices in the soundtrack evoke the free-wheeling feel of the ups and downs of cherished memories. Ditto to the smooth editing by Helle de Fevre, which aids the understated feel as well as packing a surprising punch as past moments are intercut in-between scenes; aided by the fact that Hogg’s choice of changing film formats mid-scene.

Even with all the subtlety on display and the empathy Hogg has for the on-screen relationship, she doesn’t hold back on conveying the flaws and they are compellingly impactful; even when the signs of foreshadowing are still present. Even the succinctly shown side relationships — like the protective relationship Julie’s mother has with Julie — pay off in brilliant ways. In a wonderful scene involving Julie and her mother (appropriately by a brilliant Tilda Swinton), waiting for Anthony to come home. Her mother then comforts Julie to sleep, assuring her that she’ll wait for him, as she sits on her bed with the lights on and solemn and regretful stare on her face. The blocking and Swinton’s performance manages to convey a thousand words on how she has failed to shield her daughter from the pain of heartbreak.

A lot of credit goes to the actors, whom all inhabit their characters with honesty and dignity. Small appearances (which are set in place for the upcoming sequel) by Richard Ayoade and Ariane Labed make their mark; Honor Swinton Byrne gives a fantastic performance as Julie. Essentially wearing her vulnerability like a security blanket, Swinton Byrne manages to portray the timidity, the passion, the awe that her character experiences with astonishing grace. Tom Burke is convincing as Anthony — not only because he is able to balance the pomposity and charisma of his character that is strangely magnetic; he is also able to deliver the layers of self-hatred that is gradually revealed and hidden under the character’s swagger.

The film does go on a bit too long, as there are story threads that are set-up and are left hanging before film ends — a sequel is currently filming — but overall, The Souvenir is an eye-opener for newcomers of Hogg’s work as well as an illuminating and understanding look at romantic relationships and how one’s gaze can affect those around them. Bring on the sequel!

FIVE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

The Souvenir is currently screening at the Sydney Film Festival from June 5th to June 19th.

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