Review: The Souvenir is a masterpiece that captures uncomfortable truths

Joanna Hogg’s fourth feature deals with the formation of her own artistic consciousness and refuses to mythologize any of the messy, complicated elements


THE SOUVENIR (Joanna Hogg). 119 minutes. Opens Friday (June 7). See listing. Rating: NNNNN


I discovered Joanna Hogg at the 2007 London Film Festival. I was on the international critics’ jury, and her first feature, Unrelated – a simply executed and entirely unforgettable drama starring Kathryn Worth as a woman caught between her older friends and their 20-something children on an Italian holiday – was our unanimous choice for the prize. 

I’ve been importing her films on disc ever since, because that was the only way to see them in Canada. Neither Unrelated nor its follow-ups, Archipelago and Exhibition, got any theatrical distribution here, showing up on streaming services months or years after their UK availability.

With The Souvenir, that’s finally changed. Hogg’s fourth feature won the grand jury prize at Sundance, found a home at A24 in the U.S. and Mongrel here in Canada, and it’s opening this week at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, accompanied by a mini-retrospective of her previous work. The stars have aligned, and in more ways than one, since we’ve all spent the last month talking about the excruciating comedy and shattering honesty of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s brilliant television series Fleabag. 

In her way, Hogg is as expert at capturing the awkward, uncomfortable truths of intimacy and personal realization as Waller-Bridge is in hers it’s just that Hogg doesn’t offer the release of laughter. She keeps her camera still and lets the volatility build into searing, devastating drama. And with The Souvenir, she turns the camera on herself.

The Souvenir is set in the early 80s, where a London film student called Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) is developing a feature film about the struggles of shipbuilders in northern England, possibly because she’s genuinely interested in their plight and possibly because Alan Clarke and Ken Loach had made class-conscious kitchen-sink realism the easiest way to make a name for oneself in the British film scene.

While securing financing and access, Julie falls into a self-destructive affair with Anthony (Tom Burke), a slightly older bureaucrat who fancies himself an aesthete. He’s a dismissive prick, but his arrogance has a certain charisma, and in short order she’s bringing him to parties and becoming subservient to his own needs and addictions, which are profound.

The Souvenir is a sort of memoir, with Hogg incorporating elements of her own life – re-creating her apartment, using her own photographs as Julie’s and clearly rooting the drama in her own history. But she’s not out to simply replicate the past. She lets her actors find their own characters and truths to drive the story’s emotional beats, while David Raedeker’s camera pins them in the frame as though they were studies in a still life. It’s an artful reimagining, not a documentary reconstruction.

In her first lead, Swinton Byrne – daughter of Tilda Swinton, who turns up as Julie’s mum – carries the film brilliantly, subtly conveying Julie’s dawning awareness of Anthony’s limitations in a variety of small ways while Burke finds some shading of his own in the character’s haughty posturing. (Anthony reminded me of Tom Hiddleston’s character in Unrelated, without the charm or self-knowledge.) 

Just four features into what I hope is a long and challenging filmography, it feels as if Hogg has delivered her masterpiece – a measured drama about the formation of her own artistic consciousness that refuses to mythologize any of the messy, complicated elements. She’s already working on the sequel. I intend to be first in line.

@normwilner

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