“What does a student living in a posh London area know about the subject of a little boy living in the coastal town of Sunderland who has an over affection for his ailing mother?” A faculty member advises student filmmaker Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) on making films on a subject matter that she would be familiar with. Writer/director Joanna Hogg has taken this piece of advice to heart, as this odd love relationship tale of a young filmmaker runs close to home. Hogg herself was a filmmaker who had spent time in Sunderland. The photographs that she took back in the 80’s open the film. Not only that, but Hogg has Tilda Swinton start in her short film, and now her daughter in the lead for this film. And as Julie is also advised on filmmaking, the film should be about life experienced not the way it plays out. THE SOUVENIR is a bit of both. It is clearly about life, as difficult as it is, experienced by Julie which she controls to prevent it playing out on its own.
Julie (Swinton Byrne) wants to film a working class drama set in the coastal city of Sunderland – even though she gets push back from her faculty advisors et al. Meanwhile, she meets Anthony (Burke), an art buff who works for the Foreign Office. He starts asking for money which, in turn, she borrows from her mother (Swinton). The couple’s passion for each other is undeniable. But there are awkward moments in the relationship.
“You are not normal. You are a freak.” Anthony tells Julie at one point in the film. “It is your fragility.” “Is that good?” she asks to which she gets no reply. The most awkward moment is the one during a visit to a restaurant where he gives her a really hard time for no apparent reason. Warning bells are ringing that this man is not the one to live with. In real life couples stay together for the weirdest of reasons even though common sense says they should stay apart. The same can be said for this couple. This is definitely one unstable relationship. One wonders if Hogg went through such a caustic relationship as well. Hogg shows with romance also comes trouble and couples are not always perfect.
Hogg’s drama which runs close to two hours is a slow burn. At times, it seems that nothing is going on. But the cinematography is great, the atmosphere of Sunderland nostalgic (set in the 80’s), the characters human and interesting and the storytelling is engrossing. The film’s title is from the Jean-Honoré Fragonard painting in The Wallace Collection that Anthony takes Julie to see. Words also describe the souvenir as a love souvenir. The film also won the Grand Jury Prize (Dramatic World Cinema) at Sundance 2019. Plans for Hogg’s The Souvenir Part II with Robert Pattinson are now underway.