The Souvenir: Part II
Honor Swinton Byrne reteams with her mother Tilda Swinton, plus filmmaker Joanna Hogg, for this bold and brilliant sequel to one of 2019's best movies.
March 10, 2022
In showbusiness, nepotism is as inescapable as movies about movies. Both are accounted for in The Souvenir: Part II. But when talents as transcendent as Honor Swinton Byrne, her mother Tilda Swinton and writer/director Joanna Hogg are involved — with the latter working with the elder Swinton since her first short, her graduation piece Caprice, back in 1986 before Honor was even born — neither family ties nor filmmaking navel-gazing feel like something routine. Why this isn't a surprise with this trio is right there in the movie's name, after the initial The Souvenir proved such a devastatingly astute gem in 2019. It was also simply devastating, following an aspiring director's romance with a charismatic older man through to its traumatic end. Both in its masterful narrative and its profound impact, Part II firmly picks up where its predecessor left off.
In just her third film role — first working with her mum in 2009's I Am Love before The Souvenir and now this — Swinton Byrne again plays 80s-era filmmaking student Julie Harte. But there's now a numbness to the wannabe helmer after her boyfriend Anthony's (Tom Burke, Mank) death, plus soul-wearying shock after discovering the double life he'd been living that her comfortable and cosy worldview hadn't conditioned her to ever expect. Decamping to the Norfolk countryside, to her family home and to the warm but entirely upper-middle-class, stiff-upper-lip embrace of her well-to-do parents Rosalind (Swinton, The French Dispatch) and William (James Spencer Ashworth) is only a short-term solution, however. Julie's thesis film still needs to be made — yearns to pour onto celluloid, in fact — but that's hardly a straightforward task.
As the initial movie was, The Souvenir: Part II is another semi-autobiographical affair from Hogg, with Swinton Byrne slipping back into her on-screen shoes. This time, the director doesn't just dive into her formative years four decades back, but also excavates what it means to mine your own life for cinematic inspiration — aka the very thing she's been doing with this superb duo of features. That's what Julie does as well as she works on the film's film-within-a-film, sections of which play out during The Souvenir: Part II's running time and are basically The Souvenir. Accordingly, viewers have now spent two pictures watching Hogg's protagonist lives the experiences she'll then find a way to face through her art, all while Hogg moulds her two exceptional — and exceptionally intimate and thoughtful — movies out of that exact process.
Julie's graduation project is also an escape, given it's patently obvious that the kindly, well-meaning but somehow both doting and reserved Rosalind and William have been pushed out of their comfort zone by her current crisis. Helping their daughter cope with her heroin-addicted lover's passing isn't something either would've considered might occur, so they natter away about Rosalind's new penchant for crafting Etruscan-style pottery instead — using small talk to connect without addressing the obvious, as all families lean on at some point or another. They provide financing for Julie's film, too, in what proves the easiest part of her concerted efforts to hop back behind the lens and lose herself in her work. Elsewhere, an array of doubt and questions spring from her all-male film-school professors, and the assistance she receives from her classmates is quickly steeped in rivalries, envy and second-guessing.
More than once, queries arise about why Julie makes particular choices — and seeing how Swinton Byrne responds under Hogg's meticulous direction is one of the key reasons that The Souvenir: Part II is as powerful and compelling as it is. Like everything in the film, it's a revelation in layers, which unpeel far deeper than merely asking Swinton Byrne to be her director's on-screen surrogate. An introvert, Julie is visibly unaccustomed to the scrutiny that comes with her ambitious project, and with needing to handle her inner hurt under a spotlight. Swinton Byrne makes that plain quietly but repeatedly, all while conveying how Julie's self-hesitation slowly dissipates the longer she goes on, the more she struggles with, and the more mistakes she makes and solves. How this process echoes through her work, shaping both it and Julie herself, ripples through to a disarmingly intense degree — and with crucial aid from cinematographer David Raedeker (Swimming with Men) and production designer Stéphane Collonge (God's Own Country).
There's no shaking the grief of it all, of course. As a musing on mourning, plus a perceptive glimpse at how the bereaved are expected to soldier on despite placating words offered otherwise, The Souvenir: Part II is shattering. Amid movie-within-movie sequences that'd owe thanks to David Lynch and Charlie Kaufman if they weren't so clearly diffused through Hogg's own lens — and after the other glimpse at the industry that comes via Richard Ayoade's (The Electrical Life of Louis Wain) returning Patrick, now successful, pompous AF, helming a huge movie musical and an enormous scene-stealer — the all-encompassing chaos that loss begets is laid bare. It's what drives Julie into bed with one of Patrick's stars (Charlie Heaton, Stranger Things), and sees her place perhaps too much on her own film's leading man (Harris Dickinson, The King's Man). In another of the feature's standout moments, it's also what causes her to misunderstand the sympathies of her editor (Joe Alwyn, Mary Queen of Scots) when support becomes hard to find.
The Souvenir was a fated romantic tragedy. It was a vehicle for its director to work through her memories, too, and immortalise what she's now decided to keep; yes, that title is oh-so-telling. The Souvenir: Part II is a meditation upon loss, heartbreak and life's worst existential and inevitable woes, and also a way for Hogg to sift through her memories about all those memories, not to mention the new ones she conjured up when she first turned them into a movie a few years back. It's as smart, sensitive and stacked as an immensely personal piece of cinema can be, and it's also thrillingly savvy about how subjective everything it shows and interrogates needs to be by necessity. Cinema isn't short on memoirs, many of them wonderful — recent Oscar-winners Roma and Belfast, for example — but The Souvenir and its just-as-phenomenal sequel are in a bold and brilliant realm all of their own.