Sundance Film Review – The Souvenir (2019)
Joanna Hogg has had much critical success as an arthouse director with a couple of well-received films. But she hasn’t had much luck in the states as of yet, leaving much of her success across the pond. The Souvenir might just be the film to change that, however, as a strong cast leads this restrained drama to resounding heights while showing us all a brand new star in Honor Swinton Byrne.
The following review will be spoiler free.
Directed By: Joanna Hogg
Written By: Joanna Hogg
Starring: Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton, Frankie Wilson, Richard Ayoade, Jaygann Ayeh, and Jack McMullen
Julie (Byrne) is a shy film student attempting to find her voice as she gears up for production on a project. But once she becomes romantically entangled with the intoxicating yet highly troubled Anthony (Burke), she struggles to find a balance in her life and develop a voice that will define her future projects as a creator.
Although her protective mother (Swinton) will do just about anything to help her, Julie must face her troubles head-on or else risk losing her dreams altogether.
The Souvenir is Poised for Strong Critical Success
You may not have heard of Joanna Hogg before The Souvenir, but she has created two impressive films to start out her career in Exhibition and Archipelago, both of which star the utterly charming and dashing Tom Hiddleston.
The Souvenir, however, is Hogg’s best chance yet to breakthrough in America. Not only was the film picked up for U.S. distribution — a feat that Exhibition and Archipelago did not accomplish — but it also was a major player at Sundance, earning the World Cinema Dramatic Grand Jury Prize, beating out some noteworthy challengers.
I can see all the stars aligning for this film if the general moviegoing population becomes attached to it. It has all the storylines — a rising director, a killer performance from a first-time actress, renowned talents in supporting roles — that publicists and voting bodies LOVE to award. (And that A24 logo appearing in the opening seconds of a film never hurts either.)
Honor Swinton Byrne and Tom Burke Have Wonderful Chemistry
If you haven’t figured it out by now, yes, Honor Swinton Byrne is Tilda Swinton’s daughter. Though she will definitely not have that insidiously demeaning distinction as her sole describer for long. Her character is someone who is constantly unsure of herself, and not in the typical Hollywood way where the character comes off as live-action interpretation of cartoon character. You see in her casual, subtle submission to others that she is never comfortable, and that she is constantly looking for a means to find that perfect bit of expression that will make her feel complete. Byrne’s lovably naive aura combines with her youthful, buoyant look for a perfectly understated character. It’s a classic combo of perfect writing and perfecting casting…or a classic trio with Byrne’s impeccable performance in the mix as well.
Burke as her co-lead is nothing short of revelation as Anthony, her romantic partner with many problems of his own. We’ve all seen this bad boy-type of character countless times, but Burke plays the part with his own humanity in mind. It’s easy to see why a girl would fall for him, or why they’d give him plenty of chances to redeem himself. He’s a troubled man who likes the idea of doing good for himself and those around him, but he simply can’t help himself. Anthony is a wonderful tragic character, and a great inciting force in Julie’s life.
The Humor is Insanely Dry
The Souvenir is quite prim and proper, though it enjoys offering bits of wonderful humor at its own pace and tone. A favorite scene of mine is between Anthony and Julie while they lay in bed; it’s uproariously funny, though the actors hardly crack a smile until the scene casually bursts into an intimate farce of a moment. The Souvenir is full of these elements, where between you and the characters, you’ll probably be the only one laughing. Think of Yorgos Lanthimos’ style of line delivery without the depravity or cynicism and more general humanity.
The film revels in ordinary, layered comments made from one person to another. You get the sense that Hogg truly inspired her actors to deliver their lines in an offbeat, idiosyncratic manner, regardless if they were going off script or not. Some of the most priceless moments in The Souvenir occur when a few people are sitting across from each other and struggling to make eye contact. It speaks to fantastic writing and direction from Hogg.
The Souvenir Has a Way of Sticking Around
As an anecdote, when my screening of the film wrapped up, I immediately turned to my friend sitting beside me and noted that the film was impeccably produced and acted, though it could have been about twenty minutes shorter with the same impact. I’m sure that many casual viewers will feel the same way as the credits roll.
Yet The Souvenir has continued to linger in my brain like a well-kept memory. The film loves to have its characters sit around and perform rather mundane actions, with one of my personal favorites being an impromptu family walk through the countryside where the family dogs run aimlessly through high grass. It has much less of a plot structure and more of a character structure, showing how simple moments have a massive impact on a person.
I’d be lying if I said that this makeup didn’t require some serious patience at times, though the rewards are endless if you stay with it. The Souvenir is a deeply personal story to Hogg, one that has even called a memoir at times. You can feel that intimate touch dripping all over this movie in its finer details as the film has such a strong, specific foundation.
I can envision a scenario where many leave their screening of The Souvenir quite unsatisfied. It’s a film where no one gets above a 3 on a 1-10 scale in terms of energy, a place where mumblecore sentimentalities reign supreme. I was in that boat as well immediately following my screening of the film. But The Souvenir refuses to go away. Out of all the films I saw at Sundance, I’ve thought of this one the most. Its relationships feel so life-like and layered that each realization becomes that much more heartbreaking. It’s subtlety devastating, a quiet relationship of horrors.
With time, I might love The Souvenir a lot more than I already do.
Thank you for reading! What are your thoughts on The Souvenir? Comment down below!
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