At the end of the day, we become our own people with our own ideas and voices, but the long road to get there is mired with love, loss and an often painful variety of life lessons along the way. We don’t grow up in a vacuum and every experience and relationship, from familial, romantic or platonic, shape us on fundamental levels. Filmmaker Joanna Hogg uses her latest film, The Souvenir, as a retrospective vehicle that doubles as a coming-of-age biography and an origin story for her own cinematic voice.
As in life, some of the best things are earned and The Souvenir will leave you with more than a few takeaways. The off-beat pacing might be enough to make a world-weary viewer feel every second of the 2-hour runtime, while those with film school sensibilities will love every minute. Hogg creates an atmosphere that is both deeply personal and universally relatable. Many of the inconsistencies in pacing and tone give the film a genuine nature by adding a beautifully flawed and human element. Neatness is often the enemy of emotion, and the intentionally messy aspects of the film make sure that while The Souvenir is meticulously crafted, it never feels emotionally clinical.
Through Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), Hogg explores her own awakening, but without the sugar-coating that our revisionist strolls down memory lane sometimes take. Hogg is unflinching when she needs to be, be honest throughout. Many of the more disturbing events happen off-camera or just out of our view, leaving us to visualize our own worst-case scenarios that end up being more powerful than anything we could ever be shown on-screen. These scenes are also meant to mirror Julie’s willful-ignorance to some of the horrors happening in the various toxic relationships she is in. Only when she confronts them are we ever allowed to see them in front of us, powerfully displaying the character’s growth through detailed development before reaching the satisfying climax.
Relationships end up being the catalyst for change in Julie’s life but are also one of the greatest assets the film has to offer. Honor Swinton Byrne delivers a magnetic performance that draws the audience with every mannerism and finely tuned nuance. The emergence of her convictions and increase in self-confidence become a palpable part of the story, establishing the building blocks to the filmmaker we know today. The real-life mother/daughter relationship between Honor and Tilda Swinton create a dynamic in the film that can’t be faked or fabricated. Their chemistry is so effortless and natural, that while you know their real relationship is nothing like that of their character’s, the film benefits from it as a whole any time they share a scene.
The specificity of the story does nothing to detract by how emotionally it resonates within the audience. The toxic relationships are something many of us are all too familiar, perhaps not with this same level of severity. The parent-child dynamic can apply to most of us, especially since we have to stop letting others talk for us before we can even begin to build our own voices. If you’ve had the misfortune of dating at any point in your life, you’ve likely come across a poisonous partner like Anthony (Tom Burke), whose relationship and inevitable end have forever changed you as a person. Hogg may have set this film as a period piece that follows her experience in the 80s, but the poignancy sewn throughout make the film evergreen, if not more relevant today.