Based on writer and director Joanna Hogg’s days studying filmmaking in the 1980s, The Souvenir is a moody portrait of Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), a film student who wants to make a working-class drama set in Sutherland, but who comes from a privileged background. As her teachers encourage her to incorporate her personal experience into her work, Julie meets Anthony (Tom Burke) and begins a relationship with him.
The Souvenir’s plot is unsubstantial—and sort of predictable. But also beside the point, as the film seems to be much more about setting the right mood and exploring its characters and their relationship.
Hogg does an excellent job of the former. The camera is often stationary and sometimes a little removed, particularly whenever Julie and Anthony eat out, and often holds position as the characters move out of frame or walk away. Scenes also have a habit of starting mid-conversation, and the overall effect is voyeuristic, as if the audience were a fly on the wall. Of course, this approach is also part of the reason the plot falls to the wayside—the audience is left to fill in a lot of gaps. With the film’s steady pace and fairly mellow soundtrack, Hogg conveys a day-to-day kind of calm that amplifies the film’s moments of tension.
As for the characters, there is something a little lacking. By the time Anthony’s dark secret is revealed to Julie, it’s still not entirely clear what she sees in him. He comes off as a pretentious ass. There are a couple of sweet moments between him and Julie, but the passion between them seems a little sedated.
As for Julie, the film is supposedly about her struggle to find her voice as an artist while dealing with her relationship with Anthony, but again, her passion is lacking. While she’s constantly made to defend her artistic decisions—by her teachers and by her boyfriend—she never really takes a stand on who she is and what kind of films she wants to make. And what we are shown of her time on set leaves so much to the imagination that it’s difficult to even understand what projects she’s working on.
Much was made of Tilda Swinton starring as Julie’s mother—as she’s both Swinton Byrne’s real mother and starred in Hogg’s graduation short—but her screen time is limited, and all of her best moments are confined to the film’s finale.
Apparently, The Souvenir Part II is already underway, but the original doesn’t really leave its audience dying to know how Julie’s career and personal life will progress. That being said, the cinematography and directorial choices in The Souvenir are thoughtful enough to provoke some interest in a sequel.
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