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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

The Souvenir

Starring alongside her mother, Honor Swinton Byrne is a revelation in this moving and perceptive 80s-set drama.
By Sarah Ward
October 03, 2019
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The Souvenir

Starring alongside her mother, Honor Swinton Byrne is a revelation in this moving and perceptive 80s-set drama.
By Sarah Ward
October 03, 2019
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It's usually impossible to upstage Tilda Swinton. But in The Souvenir, Honor Swinton Byrne manages that elusive feat. Adding another acting powerhouse to the family, it's a case of like mother, like daughter — although, even when they're sharing the same scene in Joanna Hogg's deeply moving drama, the younger Swinton never feels like she's just following in her famous mum's footsteps. Tilda always seems to calmly float above the rest of us, whether she's playing an ageless nobleman, a vampire or a witchy dance instructor. By contrast, Honor has a weighty, grounded but nervous presence. She's not only firmly of this world; here, as 80s-era film student Julie, she's increasingly bogged down by it.

At first, everything seems simple for The Souvenir's polite protagonist. Julie lives in a well-appointed flat in an upscale area of London, comes from a moneyed family and, like all aspiring filmmakers, has an idea for her first big project. Eager to make a movie about a working-class boy and his mother, she's also aware of her favourable station in life — in a general sense. She tells her friends that she's determined to broaden her horizons, but she's always able to rely on her mother (Tilda Swinton) when things threaten to get tough. And, when she falls hopelessly for someone who's not quite who he appears, she's instantly smitten and beguiled, albeit heartbreakingly unprepared for their relationship's darker twists and turns.

A girl, a guy, and all the ups and downs that such a pairing inevitably sparks — at the most basic level, that's The Souvenir. But if ever a movie was more than its most simplistic plot description, it's this perceptive affair. Julie's relationship with the arrogantly refined and charismatic Anthony (Tom Burke) feels like a turning point from the moment they meet, as the young woman is obviously intrigued by the older civil servant. As their lives entwine, however, their romance evolves from exciting to shattering as his secrets slowly spill out. Along the way, Hogg takes her main character on an adult coming-of-age journey, all while barely venturing beyond Julie's apartment. The acclaimed British writer/director also takes viewers through her own formative years, with the film inspired by her own memories.

Once again, The Souvenir's star isn't merely walking in someone else's shoes by playing Hogg's on-screen avatar. As Julie endures a traumatic but inevitable awakening — the distressing revelation that life always has an inescapable rough side — Swinton Byrne proves the movie's crucial anchor. She's clearly playing a highly personal part, with her role so intricate and specific that it can only be drawn from reality. In a film overtly placed among society's upper rungs, she's also the wide-eyed bridge that opens Julie's particular plight to the rest of the world. Realising that love and ambition can cut both ways is a universal sensation, after all — and, by peering deep into a precisely defined scenario, Hogg always relays this life-changing sentiment.

Gazing back at her own experiences, fracturing the rosy facade of hindsight and not only facing the pain, but laying it open for everyone to see — that's a brave task. Even fictionalised, as The Souvenir is, it makes for stunning viewing. As she's done since her 2007 debut Unrelated, Hogg is unafraid to take aim at all that seems safe, easy and cosy. Committed to unpacking the woes of Britain's well-heeled, she's similarly unafraid to show the hurt that's always lingering beneath the surface, too. Here, she unravels the heady swirls of first romance, the hopeful outlook of a young woman finding her place in the world, and middle-class comfort, watching as they all become toxic. That she does so in long, distanced, cool-hued shots that survey Julie's blinkered realm makes The Souvenir all the more powerful, conveying its alluring beauty and its empty flipside in tandem.

Insightfully scripted, lensed and performed — not only by Swinton Byrne, her always-exceptional mother and a pitch-perfect Burke, but by Richard Ayoade in a small but pivotal role — The Souvenir ultimately acts as its own memento. Meticulous, intense and devastatingly astute, the film leaves an imprint that lingers long after its frames have stopped flickering. Thankfully, this quiet but powerful tale won't stop for too long. As the movie announces in its closing moments via text on-screen, The Souvenir's story will continue in a second part, due in 2020.

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