The Souvenir

 

star

 


A longer review that seeks to explain why this widely acclaimed film has also met with some unfavourable reactions.

 
Souvenir, The

Honor Swinton Byrne, Tilda Swinton, Tom Burke and Honor Swinton Byrne

 

When a film totally divides critical opinion, it is often possible to put that down to personal taste. However, that does not seem adequate to explain the great praise bestowed on The Souvenir by many critics alongside the fact that I know some critics who share my view that this piece is utterly ineffective. What is, perhaps, a matter of taste is the particular artistry of the writer/director Joanna Hogg who created The Souvenir, a work which characteristically for her deals with English upper class characters. Her first feature (Unrelated of 2007) was both individual and worthwhile but, as regards her second film, Archipelago (2010), my own view was that she was too close to her characters to understand what was needed to make their story meaningful to the general viewer. With Exhibition (2013) she seemed to have retreated into a stylised world with characters devoid of interest, but the news that The Souvenir set in the 1980s told a largely autobiographical story suggested a fresh tack and before seeing it I viewed a trailer which looked promising. However, in the event what has to be acknowledged about The Souvenir is that it could be the work of no other filmmaker. As an artist Hogg is sticking uncompromisingly to her own approach and vision, yet this new work, although featuring a very talented cast, shows that she has reached the point where she is able to speak to some but leaves others outside her sphere of communication.

 

In these circumstances, I can only set out why I feel as I do about the film, leaving it to the reader to decide which side they are likely to be on - but if you have admired all three of this film's predecessors then you probably know the answer already. When it comes to its characters, The Souvenir is a work in which just two of them - Julie played by Honor Swinton Byrne and Anthony played by Tom Burke - are absolutely pivotal. At the same time, this London tale portrays the milieu of the well-off and the well-educated (a house in Knightsbridge is a key setting) while also showing us the world of youngsters attending a film school. Julie is in her mid-twenties and is a student planning her first film (indeed she is the character whose experiences reflect the early life of Hogg herself). Anthony is the man she falls for. He went to university and now claims to work at the Foreign Office but, while the class to which he belongs is self-evident, his not infrequent need to borrow money suggests that his seeming affluence hides something more questionable. He is older than her, a fact which possibly contributes to his attraction for her, and the film's title is a reference to the painting of that name by Fragonard now in the Wallace Collection which depicts a woman deeply in love who carves her lover's initials on a tree. For that matter, Anthony is in love with Julie, but he does have his secrets and the unsettling discovery made by Julie in the middle of the narrative is that Anthony's moods are driven by his addiction to drugs.

 

Given the nature of the relationship explored in this film, you might imagine that it would be presented as a work of passion and high emotion, but Hogg's style is the antithesis of that. Often avoiding close-ups and with long-held static shots a definite feature, The Souvenir has throughout a distanced tone. This may stem from the visuals but it is enforced by much of the dialogue which makes much play with upper class ways of speaking: insiders may admire its authenticity but outsiders are likely to feel that it sounds close to parody (and, indeed, at times Hogg clearly sees the comic side of the cadences - something best captured by the splendid Tilda Swinton who, in an echo of the casting of her daughter in the film's leading role, has a supporting part as Julie's mother). Yet this aspect too encourages one to be a mere observer of the characters.

 

Although Tom Burke gives a considered performance, the role of Anthony is the one which suffers most from this distancing: we readily regard him as insincere and his superior manner expressed through his languid tones is so fully to the fore (and not least in his attitude to Julie) that he emerges as an utterly off-putting person. This applies less to Julie herself but any sympathy we might feel for her is reduced by the fact that she looks so stupid in being attracted to Anthony.  If Hogg fails to give her any of the fire and dynamism that could bring alive her passion to be a filmmaker and make it something which wins over the audience, it is perhaps down to the upper class mode of speech which plays such a strong part in this film. Instead the whole piece seems dramatically dead and the snippets of opera heard at intervals on the soundtrack courtesy of Verdi and Bartok sound like a desperate bid to inject dramatic intensity from the outside - but it feels so self-conscious that it fails completely to do that (there are other snippets of light music heard of which the most bizarre in this context is the inclusion of Glenn Miller's 'Moonlight Serenade').

 

It's a shame that a young actress as promising as Honor Swinton Byrne should have her first leading role in this film which stands or falls by Hogg's approach. It certainly looks good with its colour photography by David Raedeker and I must concede that, even if its 120 minutes seem interminable, Hogg does find two striking images at the very close. But even here I found the second of them superfluous since it is the first one which involves a panning shot that finds Byrne at her best and for once, presented as it is in a well-lit camera movement, we have here something perfectly designed to express emotion. That apart, for all the efforts of the actors (including a brief comic cameo from Richard Ayoade) I found The Souvenir a work that never came alive for me. Nevertheless, the project earned the involvement of Martin Scorsese as an executive producer and as we discover at the close a sequel is promised. Given all that and considering the high price bestowed on The Souvenir by many critics it might well be thought that my view of this film is misguided in the extreme. Yet I know what I felt when viewing it and am also aware that there are others who had exactly the same reaction.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton, Tosin Cole, Jack McMullen, Frankie Wilson, Hannah Ashby Ward, Janet Etuk, Chyan Terrelonge-Vaughan, Richard Ayoade, Dick Fontaine.

 

Dir Joanna Hogg, Pro Luke Schiller and Joanna Hogg, Screenplay Joanna Hogg, Ph David Raedeker, Pro Des St├ęphane Collonge, Ed Helle le Fevre, Costumes Grace Snell.

 

BBC Films/BFI/JWH Films/Protagonist Pictures/Sikelia Productions-Curzon Artificial Eye.
120 mins. UK/USA. 2019. Rel: 30 August 2019. Cert. 15.