The Souvenir (Joanna Hogg, 2019) – Review

The Souvenir, a recent A24 production, is a film that seems to capture quite perfectly the idea of capturing reality through film, despite the fact that it isn’t a documentary. There is no marking of any real change at any point, the story simply flows from plot point to plot point as it pleases, gliding along innocently as we see the relationship between the two leading characters, young filmmaker Julie, who is currently on her mission to making her first feature, one focused on a young boy in Sunderland, and the mysterious Anthony. Played by Honor Swindon Byrne and Tom Burke respectively, the two give a pair of the very best performances of the year, managing to capture the intensity of their relationship perfectly in all of its different emotions, the frustration and the heartbreak just as clearly as the romance that starts it all. 

With a quietly mounting tension, gradually building behind the scenes as the pressure on Julia increases in each part of her life – her relationship with her mother, her working on her film and her relationship with Anthony all becoming more difficult at the same time, the film becomes quite uncomfortable surprisingly quickly, despite the very gentle pacing and laid back formal approach. Shot (gorgeously) on film, and with a deliberate throwback approach to the look and feel of the film that sets it apart from most films in recent memory (it feels like it would fit in much more in the late 1960s), The Souvenir feels out of place, but in the best way imaginable.

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Thankfully, it is also a film that isn’t afraid to take its time to really allow its audience to settle into its world. The pacing is very gentle, despite the gripping tension involved, and this works wonders for the characters as they feel so much more real – they are given a third dimension by the pacing. 

What is unexpected is just how rough this film gets. With a minimalist approach consisting of static shots, very little music and understated performances, the audience is so brilliantly lulled into a completely false sense of security, making even the smallest dramatic moment hit twice as hard as it typically would, and the larger dramatic beats become seriously striking. Such subtle movements of the camera become hugely impactful, brief moments of nudity become intense, and even small repetitions in the form become deeply affecting. It is remarkable.

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Though some may find it really quite dull, due to the slow pacing and minimalist directorial approach, I was quite profoundly struck by this one. It’s a wonderfully deceptive piece, and even if at times it can start to feel that it is dragging, for the watchful viewer there is always something going on, even if it is something buried under the surface. It is impressively tender, shockingly sturdy filmmaking, and one of the most impressive A24 projects in the last few years. Tom Burke must give the best male performance of the year so far, next to Stephen Graham in Shane Meadows’ The Virtues… I just really hope there isn’t a sequel to this.

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