MA15+, 119 minutes
Review by © Jane Freebury
This highly accomplished feature is a portrait of the artist as a young woman, unformed and unsure, as she starts out in life.
It’s a finely crafted miniature of a film that takes its title from the late 18th century painting by Jean-Honore Fragonard that hangs in the Wallace Collection, London. Like its namesake, it bears a closer look.
The Souvenir is written and directed by Joanna Hogg, now a veteran of the British screen industry. She has worked in television in the main and made four distinguished features for the big screen, including Unrelated and Archipelago.
The project is dear to the filmmaker’s heart. Semi-autobiographical, delving into memories of her emerging, uncertain younger self, it is told with the assurance by a commanding screen talent.
Subtle mise-en-scene advances the story and the use of colour hints at the protagonist’s gradual growth in strength and stature
Hogg is on the record as saying that when she’s directed film, she has sought to do everything she couldn’t do while working in television. The results speak for themselves.
The Souvenir takes its time, getting underway slowly while paying attention to the nuances of scene-setting. I was struck by the beautiful, subtle mise-en-scene that advances the story, and the use of colour to hint at the protagonist gradual growth in strength and stature.
Despite these pleasures, you could be forgiven for getting impatient with the two main characters, Julie and Athony. The Souvenir is set among members of the privileged classes in 1980s Britain.
Honor Swinton Byrne, daughter of Tilda, is a natural for the role of Julie, a student of film. She encounters Anthony (Tom Burke), an evasive, older dude in pinstripes and bowtie, who may or may not be working for the Foreign Office.
Although the unlikely couple become lovers, it is impossible to lose a nagging feeling that Anthony is only using her to maintain and hide his habit. He is a heroin addict.
Their characters are sometimes numbingly passive. It is a weight that can drag this otherwise exquisitely made and genuinely engaging experience down.
I wanted Julie to be more assertive, to put her foot down. This story, so beautifully and delicately told, can require patience.
One for nervously tucking her hair behind her ear, Julie is a Knightsbridge gal. She actually owns the student digs that she shares with other aspiring creative types, but she behaves like a guest.
Nonetheless, she is busy, recording party guests with her still and movie cameras. Inside and outside the scene, until she exits the party altogether for her upstairs room and another round at her editing console.
It’s apparent that Julie badly wants to step away from the privilege that has underscored her background and development. As an aspiring filmmaker, her heart has been set on a project set in Sunderland, far away in Britain’s industrial north.
She is toying with the idea of a young boy, Tony, who is terrified of losing the mother on whom his life depends. This intriguing thread may or may not have a connection with the main narrative.
During her pitch to a panel of impassive faculty staff, she is asked why she wants to tell a story set in industrial deprivation so at variance with her own experience. It’s a point that Julie’s lecturers raise with her a number of times. In a sense, The Souvenir itself, set among the fashionable and privileged classes, is the answer to that very question.
Singular in its rhythms and style, this subtle coming-of-age story will divide audiences
The Souvenir has attracted many nominations and won many awards for writer-director Joanna Hogg and her two lead actors, Swinton Byrne and Tom Burke, and Tilda Swinton has also been praised for her role as Julie’s mother. But it will divide audiences.
It is fascinating to see a marked divergence between the high critics’ score and a low audience score on the review aggregator sites. Where films have maxed the gap possible between the critics and the audience responses, like this one with a 50 percent difference between the two scores, it can make the punters wary.
And yet, when released overseas in 2019, The Souvenir was voted the best film of the year by the British Film Institute’s Sight and Sound magazine. Time will tell how it stacks up on Netflix where it is streaming.
The Souvenir is exquisitely well made, singular in its rhythms and style. A subtle take on coming-of-age that is masterfully well directed.
Jane’s reviews also appear on Rotten Tomatoes