One of the most magical things about film festivals is the prospect of discovery and, in turn, how the intensive programme of movie-watching makes you really appreciate a truly great film when you see one. Joanna Hogg’s fourth feature, The Souvenir, feels like exactly this kind of gem –an intimate object of artistry, beautifully crafted in every sense, and propelled by a beguiling performance by a newcomer to the screen.
This might not come as a total surprise to those who have followed Hogg’s career since her 2007 debut, Unrelated, which featured a relatively-unknown Tom Hiddleston, who went on to star in her next two films, Archipelago and Exhibition. In The Souvenir, it’s Honor Swinton-Byrne at the heart of the story in her first lead role, appearing alongside her real-life mother, Tilda Swinton.
Based on Hogg’s own coming-of-age in London, the film focuses on Julie (Swinton-Byrne), a privileged film student living in 1980s Knightsbridge. At a party she meets the mysterious Anthony (Tom Burke), and the pair soon become romantically entangled, with Julie falling hopelessly for Anthony despite his frequent unsavoury behaviour.
Despite the deeply personal origins of the narrative, it’s intriguing how unknowable Julie is as a character, as Hogg keeps us at arm’s length. And the more she does, the more we’re drawn in, desperate to understand the intricacies not only of Julie herself, but her fascination with Anthony, despite his many faults.
Richard Ayoade also proves a highlight as a friend of Julie and Anthony’s, who seems to catch on to the strangeness of their relationship long before the couple themselves do. The act of seeing is a common thread, through the literal (Julie’s practical study of film) to the way Hogg frames her actors, most often in wide shots, as though they are the subjects of still life paintings.
The spirit of the 1980s is evident both in the soundtrack (Bronski Beat, The Specials and The Psychedelic Furs all feature) and politics of a film that wrestles with notions of class privilege and blossoming female desire, as well as ideas about ‘female art’ and the female artist as perceived by men. A wry wit sparkles throughout, and means that when the heartache eventually comes it does so with real emotional impact.
Most intriguingly of all, it has already been announced that The Souvenir will receive a sequel – Hogg is currently working on the script, and Robert Pattinson is set to co-star with Swinton-Byrne, reprising her role as Julie. It feels as though this film barely scratches the service of its fascinating central character, and and it’s truly exciting to have a filmmaker as honest and articulate as Hogg working today.