Honor Swinton Byrne

The Souvenir

06/01/20

Writer-director Joanna Hogg’s latest feature is as much a study of film-making as it is an intimate portrayal of a flawed relationship. Its the early 1980s and wannabe film-maker Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) is trying to find her voice. She’s in her mid-twenties, and keen to explore a story that will take her out of her ‘bubble.’ And it is quite a rarefied bubble, with a Knightsbridge flat and a place at film school all funded by her parents, a set of privileges that both advantage her (giving her the space and opportunity to pursue her dreams) and infantilise her (‘Can I borrow some more money, Mummy? No, I promise, I’m not being extravagant…’). Julie is keenly aware that hers is a narrow worldview, but soon realises that appropriating someone else’s experiences isn’t going to work. And, when she meets Anthony (Tom Burke), it soon becomes apparent that even she is not impervious to drama and to strife.

Julie lacks confidence, and Anthony has lots of it. He’s ebullient, arrogant, charming and dismissive. He’s a bit older than her, works for the foreign office (or so he says), and has a taste for the finer things in life. Julie is swept off her feet but, at a dinner party, Anthony’s friend, Patrick (Richard Ayoade), reveals a disturbing secret. As time goes on, Anthony’s behaviour becomes ever more erratic and manipulative, and Julie’s fragile sense of self takes a real battering.

It’s beautifully acted by all involved, although – given the film’s preoccupation with privilege – it’s a little concerning to see the emergence of another acting dynasty, with Swinton Byrne’s real-life mother (Tilda Swinton) playing her fictional counterpart with consummate skill. Swinton Byrne has certainly inherited the family talent and is mesmerising on screen, but I’m still not sure I like a world where directors’ godchildren are cast as leads in their films. It speaks too loudly of closed doors.

Still, that aside, this is a clever, thought-provoking film. It moves slowly and leaves gaps, as much revealed by what is not said as by what is. Julie is often rendered mute by Anthony’s outbursts; her parents are models of politeness and restraint. But the relationships are vivid nevertheless, and Julie’s core determination to create something of her own shines through, despite her ongoing ordeal.

Burke is especially interesting as Anthony, ensuring we empathise with him even as we despise his actions. As he gradually exerts more and more control over Julie’s life, we begin to will her to break free from his clutches, but she seems incapable of shrugging off his malignant influence. Meanwhile, the era and lifestyle against which this toxic relationship plays out are evocatively portrayed, the cinematography’s washed out tones a subtle reminder of the historical setting.

This exquisite slow burner of a film is, most definitely, one to watch.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield