The Souvenir Is a Masterly Coming-of-Age Portrait
One of the year’s best films so far, Joanna Hogg’s semiautobiographical drama charts a young woman’s painful emergence into adulthood.
In Joanna Hogg’s new film, The Souvenir, the 21-year-old protagonist, Julie (played by Honor Swinton Byrne), lives in a bubble. She strains against this fact, telling her film-school professors and the interesting people she meets at parties that she wants to venture beyond her sphere, to capture real life on her camera, to document the economic hardships gripping 1980s Britain. But Hogg, who’s telling the autobiographical story of her own experiences as a young woman, takes pains to show how hermetic Julie’s life actually is.
The Souvenir is a coming-of-age film about the various rites of passage into adulthood—living alone, falling in love—but it’s also about the stasis and adversity Julie has to fight at the same time. It’s a staggering movie from a director who has never had a major release in the United States before, one filled with such insight and promise that Hogg is already at work on a sequel. In telling Julie’s story, Hogg harnesses one of her favorite cinematic devices—long scenes of dialogue that unfold with barely a camera movement—to delve into a relationship that tempts, tortures, and transforms her main character in ways both good and bad.
The film charts Julie’s romance with a confident, posh-seeming gentleman named Anthony (Tom Burke), who shakes up Julie’s life as they begin a passionate but troubled affair that distracts her from her studies. Hogg creates a world that sings with ordinary details. The Souvenir takes place almost entirely indoors, mostly in Julie’s apartment, which gives the movie a locked-in feeling. Though viewers wouldn’t necessarily be able to tell, nearly every set was built inside a colossal airplane hangar—a location that itself features in some of the final shots. In these later scenes, Hogg treats the hangar as a kind of metaphorical shelter, a chrysalis for Julie to break out of as she learns to stop being dependent on the people around her.
Julie especially relies on Anthony, who, within minutes of meeting her, is coolly deconstructing her idealistic notions of making documentaries about Britain’s working class. Anthony works for the Foreign Office and has a debonair cruel streak that lends him a bad-boy appeal. He tells Julie that she’s a “freak,” not the typical girl she presents herself as, and she reacts with a kind of faux-offended delight, happy to hear that there’s something special about her. Hogg depicts their affair with an unsparing eye, letting the audience instantly see Anthony’s charisma and fatal flaws while also conveying Julie’s obliviousness to the latter.
As the relationship between Julie and Anthony grows more intense, Hogg takes time to linger on their conversations about art, society, and what they want to do with their lives. Her prior films, particularly the wonderful domestic dramas Unrelated and Archipelago (both of which star a young Tom Hiddleston), are similarly intimate works. They demand that the viewer lean in and notice nuances in dialogue and body language as Hogg depicts the many ways middle-class British people often struggle to express themselves fully. Julie’s search for artistic meaning seems as tied to the politics of the time (during the fraught Margaret Thatcher years) as it is to her genteel upbringing.
Tilda Swinton, another longtime collaborator of Hogg’s, plays Julie’s mother, Rosalind—a doting, if somewhat remote, figure who supports her daughter financially but has a limited notion of what she craves emotionally. Aside from Rosalind, the supporting cast is mostly one-scene drop-ins: folks playing fellow film students, or pals Julie sees at the occasional party. Once Anthony is on the scene, the action locks in on their pairing, the ways it changes Julie, and the repercussions when their relationship begins to fall apart. The stillness of Hogg’s camera belies her careful attention to blocking; Anthony’s face is often hidden from the audience, his back to the camera, and the edges around him are fuzzy, almost as if he’s been summoned from a blurry reminiscence.
That naturalistic feeling, of a life that’s being passionately and painfully lived, is what makes this movie so extraordinary. Hogg is not a sensationalistic filmmaker, but rather someone who can convey tremendous amounts of emotion through total tranquility on-screen. While The Souvenir may be many American viewers’ first engagement with her, it won’t be their last.