The Souvenir (2019)


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This was not at all what I expected. My tendency is to skim over a synopsis if there are some key trigger words – in this case Tilda Swinton and Richard Ayoade. I think I was expecting something akin to the polished drawing-room drama of Sally Potter’s The Party (2017). It couldn’t have been more different.

Filmed in pseudo home movie/film school style, we drift along with bona fide Sloane Ranger Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), a film student from a posh family who wants to transcend her privileged bubble by making a feature film about a working class northern lad. She wants to live a less sheltered life but can’t quite eschew lunches at the Grand Hotel or borrowing money from mummy Rosalind (played by Honor’s real life mother Tilda Swinton).

Julie falls for Anthony (Tom Burke), who seems like a grown up who understands the world. He works at the Foreign Office and talks with authority about most things, including his opinion of Julie and her fragility. He’s not as debonair as he seems and it takes an acquaintance, Patrick (a scene stealing Ayoade) to point out to her what any more worldly person would have worked out on day one.

We watch as she grapples with maintaining a relationship which isn’t quite what she thought it might be and it seems a familiar space for many a woman in their 20s in their first grown-up relationship. I wanted to shake her for her eagerness to please and inability to stand up for herself. There is something here about the awfulness that is hidden behind closed doors in ‘good’ families in order to preserve reputation. It does not have the social realist allure of growing up poor in the shipyards of Sunderland and even now can seem like the privileged complaining a bit too loudly about their hard life. What makes it work, I think, is the universality of the story and the ordinariness of Julie. It’s not a glamorous trauma to have survived but to speak it is to lessen its power.

Tilda Swinton does a lovely turn as the proper and brittle Rosalind and much of the dialogue feels unscripted, as if we are a fly on the wall in a Knightsbridge flat. The camera shows and hides, sometimes switching to a low-res home movie style, intercut with director Joanna Hogg’s actual images from her time as a film student. There are beautiful small touches – the familiarity and warmth of Rosalind naming Julie’s soft toys, the cracked mirror that tells of violence we haven’t seen, Julie’s fitted bespoke suit that speaks of a film style irrevocably stuck in the past.

I thought the film was heading somewhere more specific and it’s possible to read a lot into the trajectory, considering the 80s era and the penultimate scene. I may be reading too much into it though as it is never revealed. It is largely autobiographical and I have heard that there is a sequel in the works so perhaps there is more to find out about Julie.

Have you seen this film? Let me know your thoughts in the comment below.

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