Review: ‘The Souvenir’

The Souvenir one-sheet poster

The Souvenir | Joanna Hogg | May 17, 2019

The Souvenir sees director Joanna Hogg turn to her own past in her autobiographical drama set in the 1980s when Hogg was a young aspiring filmmaker and finds romance for the very first time.

Hogg is represented in the form of Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), a young filmmaker in the 1980s who comes from a well-off part of town that many consider posh. Money isn’t an issue for her parents (her mother is played by Honor’s real mother, Tilda Swinton), which makes it interesting that Julie becomes determined to make her first film about a humble girl from the equally humble working-class city of Sunderland.

The Souvenir still - Julie and Anthony at a restaurant

Her focus soon becomes shared with a blossoming romance with an older man named Anthony (Tom Burke), seemingly sophisticated and full of world knowledge that comes with more life experience. She’s young, in love, and misses a ton of red flags, such as him asking to stay with her at her apartment way too quickly and constantly treated her like his own personal piggy bank, constantly asking to borrow money.

She’s completely oblivious to all these warning signs until a friend of Anthony’s (played by Richard Ayoade) has to literally spell it out for her. Soon, her perception changes, and the film shows us her inner turmoil to come to terms with this while trying to do what’s best for her future – as not only a filmmaker but as a person who shouldn’t be brought down to this level at any stage of life, let alone from her very first love.

The Souvenir still - Julie and Anthony's picnic lunch

The film rests firmly upon the young shoulders of Swinton Byrne in her feature film “debut” (she did appear in Luca Guadagnino’s 2009 feature I Am Love), who portrays this inner struggle with tons of conviction and believability. Equally strong is the performance from Burke as the type of manipulative lover with a dark past bubbling on the surface, threatening to tear two worlds down like a tornado.

Hogg lets it all play out meticulously slow and almost quiet documentary-like fashion, without much of the way of cinematic flair. The dramatic situation is surely the focus of the feature and Hogg lets her actors be the sole focus of this picture. While the performances do shine, it all unfolds in a rather dry fashion that never plays out with the level of oomph or dramatic heft to pull me in the devastating fashion that is so clearly intended. I never found any chemistry shared between Julie and Anthony and never understood their relationship – clearly a problem when the whole film rests upon it.

There is enough strong filmmaking from Hogg and admittedly two strong lead performances that give viewers enough to chew on, but never pulled me into its central romance in a way that made it all feel as devastatingly heartbreaking as was so clearly intended. But one thing’s for sure: Honor Swinton Byrne is clearly a talent to keep an eye on.

Rating: 6.6/10