Often, the films that prove the most frustrating viewing experiences are not those that are obvious failures, but rather those films that fall just short of greatness. Such is the case with writer-director Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, a semi-autobiographical memoir about an increasingly ‘complicated’ (extremely toxic) relationship she had in her early 20s. It is a film that I appreciated immensely in moments, but one that also, come the closing credits, left me imagining the masterpiece it could have been.
Hogg’s avatar is Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), a well-off film student living in a Very Nice flat in early-1980s London. It is there she is first courted by Anthony (Tom Burke). A little older than Julie and even posher-sounding, he has a junior position at the Foreign Office (or at least says he does) and takes her on dates to fancy restaurants and art galleries. It’s not long before he’s moved in with her.
It’s obvious from pretty early on that, beneath a ceaseless cloud of cigarette smoke and smart-sounding observations on art life, Anthony is deeply arrogant and condescending. In fact, with his aristocratic dress sense and pallid skin, plus a tendency to drain Julie of mummy’s cash, he’s borderline vampiric in appearance and behaviour. Above all else, Anthony is a master in manipulation. A scene in which he convinces Julie not only to forgive him for an appalling act, but also to herself apologise, is disturbingly awful.
Though the casting of newcomer Honor Swinton Byrne – Hogg’s goddaughter and real daughter of Tilda Swinton, who here appears as her mother – might sound like an insufferable bit of film-world nepotism, it actually turns out to be the film’s greatest strength. Swinton Byrne is nothing short of wonderful as the conflicted, vulnerable Julie, whose intelligence and instinct are constantly at war.
Burke also gives a fine performance, regularly repulsive but with just enough charm to convince us of the hold he has over Julie. And there’s a hilarious cameo for Richard Ayoade, who pops up as an obnoxious filmmaker friend of Anthony’s.
Hogg’s trademark naturalistic dialogue is excellently observed, as is her attention to period detail. The eclectic soundtrack combines Julie’s post-punk/new wave tastes with brooding passages from Bartók’s opera Bluebeard’s Castle (Anthony’s favourite); it complements the tone without ever overwhelming. Another highlight is David Raedeker’s soft cinematography, which appropriately gives the whole film the appearance of an album of slightly faded photographs.
There’s no doubting, then, that The Souvenir is formally exquisite, and sprinkled with excellent bits of character work throughout. The fragmented, episodic structure, however, fails bring the film together in a wholly satisfying way. Interactions between Julie and Anthony are often cut short just as the dynamic becomes riveting, while glimpses of Julie’s education at the film school – where she wants to go beyond the privileged bubble of her upbringing by making a documentary on the Sunderland shipyards – come to very little. I have a feeling the film would benefit from fewer, longer scenes.
I’ll emphasise again, though, that these criticisms only stick out because of how brilliant The Souvenir often is. With a Part II planned for next year, I’m intrigued as to where Hogg might take this story.
The Souvenir is in cinemas now.