If you haven’t seen a Joanna Hogg film, The Souvenir is an exceptional place to start. Hogg’s films are typically observational, often using distant takes with fixed cameras to the point where you are left to feel as if you are spying on the characters private lives. In a film which walks through every second of its 119-minute length, this can be painful and simultaneously compelling to watch.
The Souvenir is a starkly honest reflection of a privileged film student, lured and derailed by a toxic relationship, is both a coming-of-age story of countless women and an agonising memoir of one of contemporary British cinema’s exemplary writer-directors.
The Souvenir depicts a year in the life of naïve film student and aspiring artist, Julie, played by Honor Swinton-Byrne, daughter of Tilda Swinton, who also appears in the film.It was hard to work out whether Swinton-Byrne was a self-conscious actor or indeed just made me cripple with compassion for her insecurity. It is a great debut performance, particularly given Hogg’s writing style, which removes actual scripts for mere ‘treatments’, requiring actors to improvise and work with instinct.
Julie is an outsider from the beginning, vulnerable and cushioned by the protection provided by a privileged upbringing and expensive apartment, ‘gifted’ by her parents in London’s affluent Knightsbridge district. At parties, invariably hosted by Julie in her nice apartment, she is seen taking photos, observing rather than participating and her major project at film school, a drama set in the working-class shipyards of Sunderland, is a world far beyond the realms of her safe and secure upbringing in southeast England.
It is little wonder that Julie is susceptible to the charms of the charismatic Anthony (Tom Burke) who antagonises Julie’s lack of confidence, manipulating her to constantly apologise for her actions. She sacrifices a lot for him innocently unaware of what she is doing. While we feel compelled to stop Julie from being victimised and controlled, Hogg’s treatment of Anthony is not judgemental. Instead, Anthony is brought into focus slowly. In their initial introductory date, we strain to hear him speak as he talks to Julie with his back to the camera.
We build him in fragments. He has an identified position at the Foreign Office, marks on his arm, once published a book, and there is a photo of him in Afghanistan. His deception is brought to life through the distant camera shots, it’s as if we are staring at old photographs, isolated memories and the film is as much about constructing Hogg’s past as it is about addiction and first love. Indeed, photos taken by Hogg in the 80’s, were used by the production designer to meticulously recreate the views from the Knightsbridge apartment.
However, the ultimate deception is revealed when we explicitly learn of Anthony’s drug addiction. True to Hogg’s style she does not idealise or parody the British upper middle class. We are mere observers. Throughout the film there is a delicate cloud of painful politeness. No one confronts Anthony about his addiction. Hogg’s choice of actors are a delight to watch. Choosing to provide actors without a conventional script, Hogg pushes her cast to challenging degrees of vulnerability, risk and play. It’s fun to watch, particularly as Julie’s mum, Rosalind (Tilda Swinton) and husband debate the terrorist tactics of the IRA. Over a lunchtime table of fine wine and fine crystal Swinton pulls the conversation to a polite close with a wonderfully vague statement that, ”It's all terribly complicated.” It’s yet another awkward display of screaming British politeness, the devoted wife who tries to keep everyone happy, mindlessly handing cheques to her daughter and never challenging her titled husband.
The women are clearly repressed and self-effacing. Watching Julie’s attempts at directing are humiliating, as she tries to call the shots without confidence and conviction. It’s triumphant therefore, when we see Julie stand up for herself and realise that her state of loneliness and grief are growing from this doomed relationship.
The Souvenir is a sobering portrayal of a co-dependent relationship and lost identity. It’s extremely uncomfortable but necessary viewing.
Holly McBride is a writer, performer and theatre maker. She has twice won Best Actress and Best Comic Performer at the Sydney Fringe Festival and has had her work toured regionally, nationally and internationally. Holly lives in Sydney and is the producer of A Likely Story and contributor to events such as Giant Dwarf’s Story Club. After being spotted on a film set talking to herself, she caught the eye of Brisbane rapper, Evil Eddie, who then went to cast her in his film clip “Queensland’, Triple J’s most requested song in December 2010.
Holly moonlights in the health industry as a copywriter and journalist.