Joanna Hogg’s semi-autobiographical feature The Souvenir introduces Honor Swinton Byrne in a tour de force performance. It’s a stunning evocation of a young woman’s rite of passage in 1980s London, and a poignant exploration of an artist’s early foray into film.
When Julie (Swinton Byrne), an earnest film student, falls for raffish, upper-crust Anthony (Tom Burke) she finds herself sucked into a desperate and damaged relationship. He works for the Foreign Office and charms her with his worldly air and love of fine arts. She is exhilarated, rather than repelled, by his intellectual superiority and appears unperturbed by his erratic time-keeping. Meanwhile, we are aware something is terribly wrong when he keeps borrowing money and disappearing. Julie is as hooked on Anthony as he is dependent on an unsustainable and destructive way of life.
Alongside this turbulent love story, Julie attempts to launch her career at film school—she wants to make a film set in the working-class shipyards of Sunderland (cue Robert Wyatt’s classic track ‘Shipbuilding’). Julie tries to fit in, to distance herself from her privileged background, but it’s there in her parents’ Chelsea flat, in her sweet, almost childlike demeanour and her naivety. One suspects Julie is never quite accepted by her lecturers, fellow students and the boho people she meets at parties; she remains an outsider. Her family is firmly middle-upper class and through carefully constructed mise en scène, Hogg demonstrates that Julie is most comfortable with Anthony and his ilk.
Increasingly, Julie’s motivation is disturbed by Anthony’s moods, her studies disrupted by an impulse to rush to his side whenever he needs her. He woos her with a trip to Venice and manages to dispel her doubts for a short while, but continues to undermine her burgeoning creativity. Despite this, Julie holds on to the romance and excitement he offers and keeps on loving him even when she discovers the depths of his moral and emotional depravity.
Swinton Byrne has a rare poise and a beauty as captivating as any A-list actress. She seamlessly conveys Julie’s gullibility, her dawning awareness that Anthony is self-destructive and liable to bring her down with him, and her inability to give up on him. Like her mother, Tilda Swinton (who plays Julie’s mother), Swinton Byrne can look perfectly ordinary in one take and then the magic is there with the tilt of her face, a particular angle, or a smile that lights up the screen. Burke is equally mesmerising – off-setting Anthony’s boyish charm and vulnerability with a strident, public-school accent and overbearing self-confidence.
The Souvenir’s slow-moving pace and thoughtful air will likely divide audiences. It’s multi-layered and beautifully observed – as much about the creative process as it is about obsessive love. It’s a glorious affirmation of how experience feeds artistic endeavour. We know that Julie will get over Anthony and become a successful filmmaker, but this does not diminish our interest in how she gets there. Hogg captures to perfection the milieu of early 1980s London, destructive first love and artistic awakening.
Lucy Popescu | @lucyjpop