More than most countries in the western world, the United Kingdom is built on a deeply-entrenched class system — advantages bestowed by birth give comfort and opportunity to a select few who then perpetuate this hierarchy down the generations. As society in general liberalises and strives to be more meritocratic, this endemic structure continues to grant prosperity and disadvantage purely on inherited personal circumstance.
One of the freedoms allowed in the upper echelons is time — to muse, debate, pontificate and create. Great philosophers and artists emerge from higher up the societal ladder simply because they are not constrained by preoccupations of food, shelter or finance and can enjoy the headspace to grapple intensely with the big ideas.
This is so for Julie in Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir. A child from a wealthy family in the early 1980s, she lives in a cosy London flat in affluent Knightsbridge, bought outright by her parents. She’s a film student whose opening salvo takes the form of a monologue set to grainy archival footage of the Sunderland docks in their industrial heyday — she wants to make a film in the northeastern English city depicting the lives of people less advantaged than herself in an altruistic crusade through which she aims to confront and absolve her class privilege.
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Hogg’s handling of this tricky theme is commendable — setting The Souvenir among the country’s bourgeoisie could lend to mawkish navel-gazing and self-centred ennui, but her screenplay is precision-engineered to zero in on the hubris of well-off moralisers. She is keenly matched by star Honor Swinton Byrne who, herself born into a distinctly artistic position of advantage as the daughter of actor Tilda Swinton and playwright John Byrne, mines the complexities of her own upbringing and the fricative nature of artistic endeavour to cultivate nuance in a remarkable, accomplished performance — only her second screen credit.
Contradiction sits at the heart of Julie’s arc as a creator across the film. While pitching her feature film concept about regional working class hardship to her tutors, she is rebuffed with suggestions that she should begin somewhere closer to her own experience — writing and directing from what she knows rather than reaching outside of her own bubble to engage with the unfamiliar. As a narrative device, this plays out on two levels. On one, Julie works towards self-actualisation with the ultimate goal of finding the creative impetus within rather than without. Two, she hopes to become a more assured director in the process, though Hogg is wary to harp on the second level of this thread which sees Julie’s blossoming come at the expense of the purely conceptual working classes she once pledged her artistic energy to. That indeterminate huddled mass is left by the wayside.
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Nobody challenges Julie’s intent more than Anthony, a Foreign Office operative who ingratiates himself into her life suddenly and moves quickly to dominate it entirely. Played to odious perfection by Tom Burke, Anthony appears to initially represent a cathartic outlet with whom Julie can expunge her more bourgeois tendencies — champagne at expensive members-only clubs, whirlwind trips to the Venice opera or afternoon strolls around the Wallace Collection, where the Jean-Honoré Fragonard painting which lends the film its name resides. By exorcising these compulsions through Anthony, Julie can return to her more bohemian circles of friends — artists, students and the like; a more authentic proposition.
In his preposterously loud bowties and herringbone tweeds, Anthony acts as a somewhat antagonistic sounding board who pushes Julie to truly grapple with the origins of her class-led motivations, to find the heart of her need to insert herself into the lives of people from a different world to her own. Their conversations are frustrating and often circular, with the timid Julie — coddled her entire life and thoroughly unequipped for adult life (she continuously borrows money from her parents with no deadline to return it in sight) — relenting to Anthony’s jibes and subtle manipulations with little resistance.
As their connection proliferates into more overt romance, these elements proliferate in turn, but Anthony’s layers are increasingly and uncomfortably peeled back to reveal him capable of far more insidious, erratic and downright egregious behaviour than his queasy but sweet initial courtship of Julie might have suggested. Julie remains oblivious to his most obvious secret until it is revealed inadvertently by one of the couple’s dining companions — a deliriously pretentious and hilarious cameo from Brit-TV staple Richard Ayoade — after which the seeds of toxicity in their relationship bloom into vicious and persistent weeds. Julie and Anthony’s malignant codependence is obvious from the outside, but the delicate balance of Hogg’s feature is in its searingly authentic reflection of how a damaging relationship can become habitual and near-impossible to abandon. Swinton Byrne and Burke are viscerally compelling in exploring this dynamic.
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Hogg, a veteran BBC director who cut her teeth on soap operas such as Casualty and Eastenders, is no stranger to melodrama and utilises the medium’s kitchen-sink drama aesthetic to great effect in The Souvenir. Scenes of domestic drudgery and mundanity are elevated by dynamic lighting cues, evocative long takes and mellow ambient sound which delicately modulates into claustrophobic intensity at select moments.
The Souvenir is an infuriating but ultimately rewarding experience set to inspire deep criticism and analysis. Its considerations of human interaction, societal interplay and raw emotion reach the highest tier in their careful calibration and mature realisation. Much can be made of Tilda Swinton playing the mother of her real daughter’s character, and her fleeting role speaks volumes in the unspoken, genetic bond that the two share in quieter moments, but this is more a star-making role for the younger actress. It’s a searing showcase of her chemistry with Burke and a defining project for Hogg that is likely to see the director move to the world stage. Infinitely layered and deliciously complex, The Souvenir will reward attentive observation and repeat viewings.
Rhys Handley (@RhysHandley2113) is a journalist and film writer from Yorkshire in England. Now based in London, he is the biggest Talking Heads fan who still hasn’t seen Stop Making Sense.