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The Souvenir

Reviewed by Simon Ramshaw.

Director Joanna Hogg
Length 119 minutes
Certificate 15
Rating *********-
Filmmaking: 5  Personal enjoyment: 4

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Joanna Hogg returns with some considerable and surprising fanfare after a six-year absence with a semi-autobiographical work that simultaneously realigns all her previous work and serves as her best film to date. It almost acts as a back-handed apology for her filmography to date, which largely centres around upper-class Brits having minor problems and massive arguments, all while being filmed from a cold, unyielding distance. Imagine the surprise not only when Hogg opens The Souvenir with documentary footage of the shipyards in Sunderland (!), but then films a large portion of the narrative with handheld film stock. She even gives us a subjective shot at one point.

Any other combinations of styles would feel disingenuous, as this is undoubtedly Hogg’s most personal work. Drawing from her own experience as a young woman in the film industry, The Souvenir follows Julie (Honour Swinton-Byrne, carrying those Swinton acting genes marvelously), a facsimile of Hogg herself, but more importantly, a woman eager to express herself with great sensitivity. Taking place during the 1980s, Julie applies for film school in order to tell a contemporary story she finds fascinating: the painful decline of Sunderland’s ship-building industry. Yet from all sides, she is discouraged from this endeavor, and guided towards making something a lot closer to her own privileged experience. This forms the backdrop to her deeply troubled relationship with the bullish Anthony (Tom Burke, never better, and possibly channeling Orson Welles?), whose presence is less of a help and more of a hindrance.

True, this does sound like more of the same from Hogg, but the self-referential nature of the tale is more enlightening about the problems of privilege. Julie is a sincere character with good intentions but a somewhat nebulous vision; whenever she is asked about the film, she is either unconvincing or completely fumbles her pitch. As Hogg’s film progresses, the earnest idea of immortalising the shipyards’ unfortunate decline in Julie’s film falls by the wayside, and is engulfed by the upper-class problems Anthony inconsiderately lays at her feet. What the film becomes is more like Hogg’s previous work, but it’s given an emotional context that films like Archipelago (2010) lacked.

Honour Swinton-Byrne does imbue Julie with a charm that makes Hogg’s own come to life, and it’s a relief to discover that she has genuine on-screen chemistry with her own mother, Tilda Swinton. Their real-life relationship gives the film an emotional anchor that stops it from veering into naval-gazing introspection. Burke is also excellent, giving a loathsome twit some sort of humanity outside of his pompous posturing. There’s even a little bit more flamboyant flavour given to The Souvenir with a film-stealing cameo by Richard Ayoade, who is both an absolute hoot and very convincing as a bohemian filmmaker friend of Anthony.

There are definite moments where the elliptical, flipbook pacing elides some potentially-interesting developments, but it’s impressive that Hogg has pulled off something this bold and honest in such a pensive package. ‘The Souvenir’ of the title refers to a painting by Jean-Honoré Fragonard of a woman carving a name into a tree. The film in that respect could be an immortalisation of memory, of paying tribute to someone over and over again. But there’s something a little more literal about the title beyond that; a ‘souvenir’ in itself is a token, often expressed as a limp gesture, like a keyring brought back from some exotic destination. The ‘souvenir’ here is effectively Julie’s attempts to offer another social class some form of expression, but it is constrained by the insidious trappings of her own privilege. It’s ultimately a treatise on the impossibility of telling a truth that isn’t your own. This is Hogg’s, and it’s pretty beautiful.

This review was published on September 01, 2019.