Perhaps the biggest difference between The Souvenir and Part II is its shift towards comedy. Whereas the first film charted the doomed love affair of Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), the aspiring film student, and Anthony (Tom Burke), who might work for the Foreign Office or might be a compulsive liar as well as a confirmed drug addict, this second outing takes the aftermath of grief and the slow process of recovery and along the way charts a surprisingly comic path. Tragedy is when everybody dies: comedy tells us life goes on. This is life going on.
One of the more assured sources of comedy is Patrick, Richard Ayoade’s pretentious wannabe-Orson Welles. But he also serves as the film’s wryly ironic meta commentary. All British films are just “drizzle”, he says. He warns Julie away from ‘the obvious’ and the film frequently gestures towards a well-worn route before making a u-turn. So when, during Julie’s first scene, she tells her mother Rosalind (Tilda Swinton) that her period is late, one possible plot opens only to be dispensed with later with a genuinely laugh-out-loud moment.
At first Julie is almost catatonic. She visits Anthony’s parents to return some of his stuff. She spends more time with her parents, lapping up the unconditional maternal love and her father’s baffled good-humour. At film school she is similarly detached as her fellow students, including Patrick, seem to already be fast-tracking towards glittering futures. For her own project, she abandons her social realist beginnings for something both more confessional and more magical: a memorial to her relationship with Anthony. But when it comes to making it a reality, both the school and her own crew have a suspicion that it might be, as the kids say, “too soon”.
It is such a delicate balancing act. Julie is someone coming to terms with her grief but also in danger of making a shit film, shadowed by the actual film which begins to wear its own fictional status a bit more boldly. Cinematographer David Raedeker seems to have taken notice of Patrick’s diatribe against rain and photographs the subtle wonder of an English summer. The soundtrack is a mix of period-perfect pop songs, often used to jar us from one scene and mood to the next and constantly surprises with a fresh surprise.
Real-life mother and daughter Tilda and Honor give superb performances of true depth and complexity, perfectly navigating the comic and the despair that always threatens to return. But it is Hogg herself who, as writer and director, deserves all the plaudits. There is no one quite like her working in British cinema. In fact, with her wit and masterful subtlety, the nearest comparison is perhaps with Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda. The two-part The Souvenir can be seen very much as one whole, and as such is one of the very best achievements in recent British cinema.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty