Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir was the best film I saw at Sundance 2019, and I had a very emotional reaction to it in a way that I’m still having trouble processing almost a full week later. It’s based on Hogg’s experiences as a film student in the ‘80s London, but the autobiographical assets aren’t totally advertised to the viewer in the way that they are in, say, The Farewell (which memorably begins with the words “Based on a true lie”). But plenty of credit for it can be assigned to the talents of Honor Swinton-Byrne, who headlines the film as said film student, and who manages to astonish in her first lead role. It’s a stately and slow movie, though it’s one filled with the highs and lows of young love, and will not be for everyone. But it was for me, and I’m still in awe of it.
Julie (Swinton-Byrne) is a young Englishwoman from means who has a supportive and loving mother (Tilda Swinton) and artistic ambitions. She’s studying film, hoping to make a movie about the struggles of fishermen and dockworkers on the coasts of England, so that she can bring both awareness to their plight and use it as setting fodder for her drama. She’s got a large and stable friend group, and one night at one of the many parties she hosts on the weekend at her large apartment, she meets an aloof and intelligent loner named Anthony (Tom Burke) who captivates her. He says he works for the Foreign Office, and dresses fancily — he does have a taste for the finer things in life, from restaurants to trips to Venice to see the opera — and Julie is entranced by him, and as she grows closer to the man she loves, she begins to forget about her parents and her friends and film school, and soon devotes every single second of her life to Anthony. However, Anthony isn’t all that he seems, and is suffering from something that may rip the two of them apart.
Many will be distracted by the gimmick of Swinton-Byrne’s performance — namely, that she never received a copy of the script, and instead improvised both her dialogue and reactions in each and every scene — as opposed to its results, which renders Julie a type of young character who has every bit of artifice stripped away from her words and actions. It’s not “raw” as you might expect, especially if you’re not informed of Hogg’s process here, but rather Swinton-Byrne is restrained and poised throughout, letting the character and her circumstances totally define her every move. As such, she feels absolutely and totally authentic, assisted smartly by Hogg’s deep knowledge of the moment and the emotional “whys” of every frame. There are powerful expressions of love and desire captured here, as well as the pain that inevitably follows it. As far as the other members of the cast are concerned, Burke and Swinton are, as usual, great here, and Richard Ayoade nearly walks off with the film in his single, yet pivotal, scene. But it is Swinton-Byrne’s show, and Hogg never once takes her camera off of her — she’s always processing, always reacting, always feeling.
Cinematographer David Raedeker crafts an immersive vision of ‘80s England, one confined almost exclusively to a number of small locations, from the bright whites and warmth of Julie’s apartment, to the wide, stately restaurants that Anthony likes to dine in, to the immersive darkness of a film set, shrouded in blackness outside of a central focal point. It has a stark quality of memory to it, as if these locations were, specifically, lived in and inhabited by the characters outside of mere plot mechanics or set dressing. Namely, they feel, much like everything else in the film, plucked directly from Hogg’s memory, captured with an amount of sensory detail that feels at times tactile. She’s content to let the film unfold, much as it would in one’s mind’s eye, at her own leisure; and the occasionally glacial pace of the film is sure to anger some audience members, but I’d argue that Hogg provides you with more than enough to hang one’s hat on in the moment, and Swinton-Byrne’s astonishing performance is more than enough to captivate one’s attention.
It will be fascinating to see how Hogg follows up this film, given that a sequel is currently filming that will pair Swinton-Byrne with the likes of Robert Pattinson, and what kind of shape that takes — perhaps it will be a Love’s Labour’s Won that will, you know, not be lost to the winds of history — but regardless, what we’ve been presented with here has the feel of a modern masterpiece.
The Souvenir has an incredible understanding as to the vagaries of young love as a creative individual, the pain of that love’s transformation into toxicity, and the hurt that follows, as life eludes one’s ability to control the outcome and structure of events. It’s a masterful and personal introduction to both a filmmaker unfamiliar to American audiences and a lot of critics and a young actor who very well may be a transformative power in this art-form much like her mother was. This is, most definitely, not to be missed.
Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus. Featured image courtesy of Sundance Institute.