At an early point in The Souvenir, the protagonist explains that filmmaking is, for her, a form of therapy. The Souvenir itself might be a form of therapy for Joanna Hogg, who wrote and directed it and has since said that she based her script directly on her own experiences. The woman’s name is Julie and is played by Honor Swinton-Byrne, daughter of Tilda.
As heartbreaking as it is acutely observed, Hogg’s deep-diving autobiographical film is a beautiful, confessional tell-all about the brief joys and enduring tragedy that helped her find her voice as an artist. That journey begins in Sunderland in the early 1980s where Julie is studying to be a filmmaker and harbors dreams of making documentaries about shipyard workers in the hope of leaving her privileged upbringing behind. Her lecturers don’t take her too seriously and she responds in kind. As any fan of Hogg’s work might guess, this does not last.
Indeed, girl meets boy whose name is Anthony (Tom Burke), an older, pinstripe-suited rich kid who claims to work for the foreign office. For Julie, he is a gateway drug to the high life and Hogg cleverly uses that to explore how her humble, self-effacing younger self was whisked away from idealistic documentaries and into filming the vagaries of the British upper-middle-class. As Anthony mansplains late on: “You will get further with arrogance”. At one point Julie admits to feeling mediocre to which Anthony replies, “you’re lost, you’ll always be lost”. Toxic relationships have been built on less.
Burke is a revelation in the role; brash, unconventionally handsome, manipulative – and seemingly born with a cigarette in hand – but also fragile and nuanced enough to manage the deeper sub-currents of Hogg’s narrative. These are, of course, best left unknown to anyone yet to see the film but suffice to say that Anthony has his reasons and the masterful way in which Hogg and Burke reveal them is her film’s coup de grâce. Swinton-Byrne is more than his equal as Julie, incandescent in what is basically – indeed shockingly – her first on-screen role.
It is the elder Swinton, however, that ultimately steals the show, hovering on the periphery of the story for the opening exchanges before swooping back in to offer an emotionally reserved and quietly devastating shoulder to cry on. She is a perfect fit for the period but then so is most everything in Hogg’s movie, from the clothes – which are casually of their decade without having to rely on things like shoulder pads and ankle warmers – to the soundtrack – think less Duran Duran and more Mark E. Smith and John Cooper Clarke. The politics of the time are touched on with similar consideration, most noticeably regarding the complexities of the war in Northern Ireland at the time – a topic with real poignancy, it should be said, in the current news cycle.
All of which leads us to the nagging truth of Julie’s affluence – her and Anthony’s jaunt to Venice with monogrammed luggage sticks out – which is faced up to by the filmmaker with absolute honesty if also somewhat of a non-apology apology. Indeed, Jane Campion’s jury awarded The Souvenir the world cinema Grand Jury Prize in Sundance last month by unanimous decision and it is with considerable credit to Hogg and her cast that audiences there and now in Berlin have been able not only to embrace Julie and Anthony’s story but to share in their heartbreak, too. A great many more will follow.
The Berlin Film Festival runs from 7-17 February. Follow our coverage here.
Rory O’Connor | @Roryseanoc