By Gerald Peary
Joanna Hogg refuses by aesthetic principle to put a lot of inflection into her scenes, steering them away from melodrama and even heated drama. As a result, some episodes are half-baked, sketchy, and flat.
The Souvenir, written and directed by Joanna Hogg. Screening at Boston Common, Coolidge Corner, and Kendall Square Cinema.
In the new British drama The Souvenir, the film student protagonist, Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), stands nervously before a committee of her faculty. She’s soliciting their support to make a movie about the struggles of a family of shipbuilders in Northern England. Julie wants through her filming to learn about a world vastly opposite from her high bourgeois background. That’s the rarest departure for her protagonist being different from Joanna Hogg, the writer-director of this openly autobiographical film. Hogg has made four contemporary-set features, including this one, all about characters who come, as she does, from money and property.
Hogg’s earlier trilogy — Unrelated, Exhibition, and Archipelago — were literate and intelligent and perhaps only seen by critics. (This critic enjoyed them all.) The Souvenir is, seemingly, Hogg’s breakout movie, after having won a major jury prize at Sundance. With the backing of A24, an important indie distributor, it’s playing at art theaters across America. Film reviewers have embraced it, perhaps too much: a 92% Rotten Tomatoes rating. And real people? They don’t quite get its appeal, as demonstrated by the 41% Google user approval.
I’m in between. I like the story setup, of nice-girl Julie trying to find her voice at film school and, more complicated, with her older, more worldly, and decidedly more devilish boyfriend. I like the milieu that The Souvenir is set in, 1980s London, the Age of Thatcher, jumping from the raggedy, multicultural world of film school to Julie’s patrician, country-estate family to Julie’s neatly middle-class Knightsbridge duplex apartment, paid for by her wealthy parents. But what’s wrong with The Souvenir is also what’s often good about it, that Hogg refuses by aesthetic principle to put a lot of inflection into her scenes, steering them away from melodrama and even heated drama. As a result, some episodes are half-baked, sketchy, and flat. They don’t really develop and ripen.
The 1980s. Everyone smokes, certainly every cinema student, and mansplaining is ubiquitous, from the all-male production faculty to Julie’s garrulous bohemian friend coming over for dinner, to, most of all, Julie’s know-it-all boyfriend, Anthony (Tom Burke). If feminism is in the air, it’s very dim, and Julie doesn’t seem to notice that the men take up all the talking space. She’s quiet, polite, and willing to learn from all those wise males, and to definitely overvalue the haughty opinions of her beau.
Her mystery man, Anthony, always with coat and necktie, is impossible to figure out in terms of class. Is he a slumming House of Lords type? Or is he an East Londoner who has learned to converse as if he’s an Oxford don? He has an artsy background but claims now to work for the Foreign Office. Does he? He’s as handsome and arrogant and self-dramatic as a young Orson Welles. But his big dark secret: Anthony’s a heroin addict who is constantly in need of a couple of quid to support his habit. When he does finally break down on camera,The Souvenir’s most pronounced moments, he’s like a destroyed Dorian Gray.
How does Julie react to having a drug-addled boyfriend? She’s totally stiff upper lip. She doesn’t want to talk to him about it. She wants life to go on with her having a boyfriend. She gives him money, which he clearly uses to score. When she discovers he’s faked a robbery in their apartment so he could steal her jewelry, Julie quickly forgives him, even apologizes to him for being so accusatory. In a word, she’s a classic enabler, consistent with her letting men call the shots.
Hogg goes easy on Julie, her filmic stand-in. At no point, do we feel the filmmaker getting critical of The Souvenir’s protagonist for any foolish, non-feminist thing she does. Hogg insinuates it’s all part of the growing process of becoming an independent-minded young woman. As for class, Hogg has made some of the most arresting films on the peculiar ways of the British upper crust since such caustic 1960s mastepieces as Joseph Losey’s Accident and The Servant. But In Hogg’s case, there is no Marxist animus. At her fiercest she is gently satirical, as in the portraits of Julie’s parents which, presumably, are based on Hoggs’s very own mum and dad.
Julie’s father is a ruddy-faced, slightly smug patrician who mutters in complaint at the dinner table about the violent IRA and considers a possible new hobby of “studying history.” One can imagine the stacks of Churchill biographies in his office. Swinson’s mom is, of course, slightly more liberal and with a longing to be artistic. She’s ready for an adult education course on making your own pottery. These remarkably etched secondary characters are a highlight of The Souvenir, beautifully rendered by James Spencer Ashworth and the great Tilda Swinton. A joy is watching the intimate scenes with Swinton and Honor Swinton Byrne, her real-life daughter in her first film role as Julie.
Gerald Peary is a Professor Emeritus at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of nine books on cinema, writer-director of the documentaries For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism and Archie’s Betty, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess. He is currently at work co-directing with Amy Geller a feature documentary, The Rabbi Goes West.