‘The Souvenir’ is no ordinary memento
Written and directed by: Joanna Hogg
Starring: Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke and Tilda Swinton
“The Souvenir” – Set in the 1980s in Sunderland, England, writer/director Joanna Hogg’s “The Souvenir” purposely feels like a hazy dream. A look back to yesteryear, in which the individual scenes seem to reveal themselves as separate memories with little connective tissue from one to another, although collectively, this story of Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) and Anthony (Tom Burke) is certainly linear and whole.
Julie is a young, bright film student. The daughter of supportive, financially-comfortable parents, she owns seemingly limitless career paths and opportunities for positive, life-affirming experiences. This, of course, makes her choice of a companion a perplexing one, because Anthony offers two visible qualities: a warm body for cohabitation and insidious toxicity.
The film’s tagline is “The past never stays in focus,” but Julie’s and Anthony’s poisonous relationship is crystal clear for the audience, as he blinds our young, wide-eyed heroine with his constant stream of meanspirited games. Games that creep subtly into conversation and on occasion – without warning - forcefully bully into Julie’s plain view. No matter the degree of degrading belittlement, Julie overlooks Anthony’s behavior or is oblivious to it.
Anthony appears to be Julie’s first love, so she only knows devotion. Unfortunately, the sentiment is not returned, and whether Anthony repeatedly asks for “a few quid” or reveals a specific self-destructive behavior, Julie enables his conduct. These moments are sure to enflame moviegoers, but Anthony dryly concocting his crafty putdowns through framing any particular situation might be the most infuriating. He calls her “fragile” and “lost”, to name a few insults, but he also surmises - during one dark lark - that she takes up too much space on her bed. All designed to cut her down and placate his self-loathing, he is leveling the playing field in his mind, if not tilting it in his direction.
Even during the couple’s first meeting, Hogg pours an uneven foundation that disadvantages Julie solely based on her naivete, which allows Anthony’s easy entrance into this young woman’s world, dig in his roots and spread his rot in her cozy two-story flat. Their shared encounters are not long and episodic but just last a few minutes at a time, which raise figurative bristles in anticipation for his next unwelcome, snide comment or destructive action, while Julie - ironically – repeatedly apologizes for feeling conflicted.
Burke and Swinton Byrne dive into the material and offer deep, cavernous mindsets for the characters that are wholly convincing. Perhaps, Julie believes that all relationships are difficult, and this is just how it is, even though her parents – by all accounts - enjoy a loving, happy marriage. (Note that Tilda Swinton plays Julie’s mom on-screen and is Honor’s in real life.) In turn, Anthony’s folks seem to adore one another, so there is no immediate explanation for his posture either.
In a fair-minded world, there is no place for this couple to rendezvous and settle, but under the grey skies of this English town that sits on a North Sea beach, one can only wonder how many other Julies and Anthonys live in Sunderland, let alone everywhere else. Perhaps we know several such couples or are reminded of one of our own past relationships. One in which constant acceptance and emotional impairments ruled the day. If anything, “The Souvenir” can be teaching moment that the present should always stay in focus, but Hogg’s film is so much more.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.