At the age of sixty, British filmmaker Joanna Hogg still isn’t a household name. She has been working steadily in the film and television industry but has made only a handful of feature-length movies. Her film, The Souvenir, an unusual romance/drama which she produced, directed, and wrote, was released in 2019.
For more than a year, this movie played the film festival circuit and won awards for Hogg and the movie’s female lead, the impressive young newcomer, Honor Swinton Byrne, daughter of Tilda Swinton and playwright John Byrne. And it is Tilda, a friend of the filmmaker since their youth, who plays the mother in this film.
The story is told in a quiet, direct fashion. It’s the 1980s in London. Julie, a twenty-four-year-old film student who comes from an economically privileged background in Knightsbridge, falls in love with a rather stuffy attractive, but kind-of mysterious man. That character is played by Tom Burke, and at forty he is an actor whose talents and versatility are becoming more evident as time passes. One moment he is playing C.B. Strike, then Orson Welles, then he is dancing in Buckingham Palace as Dazzle Jennings in The Crown. Burke received a long list of award nods for his performance in Hogg’s film.
No wonder the two actors have been cited, because The Souvenir gives both Byrne and Burke the attention they need to be fully appreciated. There are many scenes that they share, discreet instances where the two speak undisturbed in the way couples do when they are getting to know one another. I have read that Hogg tends to keep the cameras rolling to allow the actors to extend their depth of character through improvisation. In The Souvenir, this technique seems in evidence. One gets the feeling of naturalism and spontaneity.
Two people getting close and eventually being sweetly in love can make for a pleasing film experience. The Souvenir is not that kind of story. There is a hitch. It comes out fairly early in the film and makes the tale both complex and riveting.
The acting is understated, and this approach sets the mood of the film. It’s the unusual viewing experience these days for a drama. No voices are raised in anger. No doors slam when love momentarily goes south. Hogg has a directorial style that is so restrained that it’s amazing how much emotion she squeezes out of her actors and their predicaments.
There are a few potent scenes between Tilda Swinton and her real-life daughter. Along with the rest of the movie, they are subtle exchanges. However, there is an instant where I was especially drawn by their eye contact, their stiff but really connected body language.
I think of The Souvenir, which by the way is executive-produced by Martin Scorsese, as presenting a story mainly for viewers whose emotions have matured, those who appreciate quiet storytelling. Maybe I’m being too judgmental in saying so. It’s never melodramatic, even when the plot excites. I was interested in reading that Hogg based the movie on her own experiences during her film school days. She has tapped into a series of memories that are from the academic side of things, and also from her very separate and private love life. Both aspects ring true.
The Souvenir is available on DVD and for streaming on Prime Video from Amazon.
Fortunately, Hogg has been able to make a sequel, The Souvenir: Part II, which was released in the U.S. just recently on October 29. I look forward to seeing this follow-up film.
Audrey Kupferberg is a retired film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her late husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.
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