Writer-director Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir has many pleasures. Part coming-of-age story, part tragic anti-romance, part period piece about the bleak damage done to England by Thatcherism, it pulls off all of its many accomplishments seemingly effortlessly. But perhaps its greatest pleasure is the rare opportunity to see a revelatory first performance by an actor whose work immediately announces them as a major artist to watch.
In this case, the actor is Honor Swinton Byrne, who stars as Julie, a film student in her early twenties in 1980s London. At a party, she meets and begins a relationship with Anthony (Tom Burke), a secretive Foreign Office diplomat who’s pushing 40. From the beginning, the lopsided power dynamic of their romance gives way to exploitative, predatory behaviour by Anthony. Julie is too lovestruck and inexperienced to see just how dangerous Anthony is to her, until she discovers an extra, toxic layer to his secrecy.
Byrne also acts alongside her real-life mother Tilda Swinton who, in a few minutes of screentime, demonstrates why she’s mentioned in the same breath as Streep and Day-Lewis. Burke is also excellent, playing Anthony with a soul-sucking version of wealthy English arrogance, like a mix between Morrissey and Dracula who’s read too many Ian Fleming books. But Byrne elevates the film to another level with a degree of artistic maturity most actors don’t achieve in a lifetime. Julie is consistently treading in emotional waters well above her head, and every time she gets closer to shore, a new wave pulls her further into the deep. Byrne conveys that desperation through body language as deft as a dancer’s. Julie is poised enough to conceal her desperation from most, but Byrne’s posture and expressive face convey that the cover over her and Anthony’s volatile relationship is becoming increasingly threadbare.
Hogg has called The Souvenir autobiographical, and film fans will spot some fun real-life allusions. Julie’s film school shorts look an awful lot like the movies of Derek Jarman, who was an early mentor to Hogg (and whose 1986 film Caravaggio featured Swinton’s screen debut). But Hogg also makes what could be an unbearably heavy story feel funny and thrilling, without sacrificing any of its emotional wallop. She lets important story moments happen offscreen. While the audience sees the moment Julie learns of Anthony’s secret, we never see when Anthony learns that she knows. Like Julie, certain truths are being kept from the audience. The delay only makes those discoveries hurt more.
The look and sound of The Souvenir highlight the clashing personalities of Julie and Anthony. Julie comes from a well-off family but fits in with her diverse, working-class school colleagues. She’s a hip, young ’80s woman, while Anthony acts, speaks and dresses like he should be leaning over a map plotting maneuvers during the War of 1812. It’s echoed in cinematographer David Raedeker’s 16mm photography, which pairs sharp, clear light with a smudged, soft grain. The soundtrack oscillates between synthpop and opera.
The closing credits end with a title card stating that The Souvenir: Part 2 is “coming soon,” but no part of this film feels incomplete. Joanna Hogg has made a statement on love and power as vital to 2019’s cultural moment as Us and Midsommar, while also introducing the world to who might become its new favourite actor.
Published in Volume 74, Number 1 of The Uniter (September 5, 2019)