The Souvenir, directed by Joanna Hogg, is a period piece set in 1980s London that follows the life of budding film student Julie as she navigates a tumultuous relationship with an older man. (AEG: 2.5/5)
Review by FF2 Intern Anika Guttormson
Joanna Hogg attempts a great feat in her latest film, The Souvenir: she allows the action to unfold with extreme naturalism, resisting the urge to offer the audience much in the way of plot setup. The film focuses on Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), a young film student living and working in London against the sociopolitical backdrop of The Troubles, and her older boyfriend Anthony (Tom Burke). The film toys with themes of secrecy versus honesty and attempts to plunge us into the mindset of a sheltered young woman as she begins to learn about the horrors of the world through her new partner. Though Hogg’s technique of keeping the viewer guessing is certainly radical and the film boasted the work of renowned actresses like Tilda Swinton (in the role of Julie’s mother), it unfortunately left much to be desired.
The character of Julie feels far removed from someone that many women in the audience could relate to, as she feels more like a passive observer than a well rounded women in her own right. Upon meeting Anthony she is uncertain and insecure, and seems desperate to find someone to cling on to as well as wooed by his (fake) displays of wealth. Over the course of the film we watch her come into her own more and more and begin to find her own voice through her art, but one thing that never seems to change is her naivety and obliviousness to what is happening around her.
Upon first seeing track marks on Anthony’s upper arm Julie seems confused by what caused them, and it takes her a while to fully grasp the fact the fact that Anthony is a struggling addict despite the obvious signs shown to the audience in the film. Of course, the symptoms of addiction are not always obvious to the loved ones of those struggling, but the film paints Julie as somewhat naive in all situations, rather than simply when it comes to drug use. From here, it is never made clear just how bad Anthony’s addiction is, or what Julie is doing to support him. Even after she learns of his usage she continues to lend him money and excuse his moments of bad behavior, with no explanation as to why.
Hogg attempts to focus on the effects of these tense situations by showing Julie falling asleep in class or being confronted by worrying friends. This narrow focus on the drug habit, however, pushes the plot aside in a way that is detrimental to the film. Things that should be more heavily focused on such as characters’ relationships to one another or significant plot points become muddled by Hogg’s filmmaking. Unclear passes in time run rampant to the degree where I spent more time attempting to piece together the story in my head than I did enjoying the film.
Though she is naive, Julie expresses a desire to learn more about the world around her and step out of her privileged middle class bubble to learn more about the world. Through his addiction, Anthony is able to provide some of the insight that Julie seems to be looking for. The problem with this is that both characters are kept at such a distance that developing empathy for them could be a struggle for the audience. Julie wants to step out of her sheltered world, and yet does little to form a real understanding of Anthony’s problem. Vice versa, Anthony treats Julie as though she’s a pest that he can’t shake.
While The Souvenir contains moments of insight and boasts an unconventional format that few directors would be willing to approach, it ultimately falls short of its goal. Unfortunately Hogg struggled with the balance between mystery and honesty and, to my disappointment as someone who has enjoyed her previous films, it left her otherwise intriguing work feeling flat.
© Anika Guttormson (5/28/19) FF2 Media
Photo Credits: IMDB
Q: Does The Souvenir pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?
There are conversations between Julie and her mother that don’t involve men.