The Souvenir (Film by Joanna Hogg)

There is a cinema within walking distance of my house. I can’t remember the last time I went there. I’m not really a cinephile, I'm happy watching the classics on TV or DVD. The Souvenir by Joanna Hogg is not a mainstream film, but obviously I wanted to see it because Tom Burke was the male lead in it. The film isn’t released in the UK until 30th August 2019, although my local Curzon cinema was showing it 20th July, at 11am. I say my local Curzon cinema…it’s 40+ miles away, but what is 40 miles to see a film when I’m prepared to go to the other end of the country to see Tom in a play?!

My friend and I met at the cinema, got a cookie and a cuppa (served on a china plate) and went forth into this intimate cinema screening, where there were small side tables by the seats…and reclining chairs! I’m so easily pleased. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the film, I knew the subject matter was likely to be harrowing, but at least I would be in comfort when my eyes started to leak.

Where purity of soul meets morality...

To put some context into the film, “The Souvenir” on which the film is entitled, is an enchanting painting by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, completed in 1778. It depicts a young girl who has received a letter from her lover (which lies discarded on the ground) carving her lovers initials in the truck of a tree. Her devoted dog, a spaniel, a symbol of fidelity, stares towards her. The sale catalogue of 1792 states the girl is the heroine of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s epistolary novel Julie (or New Heloise.) The protagonists are Julie, of privileged descent and Saint Preux her tutor and a commoner. The story follows a complex maze of feelings and intellectual debate, where purity of soul is entwined with morality, and the fate of these two lovers is left to the effects of the society in which they live. (If you haven’t read the novel, think along the lines of when Tom narrated Pamela by Samuel Richardson – as I’m sure many readers will have listened to Tom’s work!)

This small painting measuring a mere 19x25 cm is housed in the Wallace Collection in London, and whilst small manages to evoke a serious of emotions and questions. How will this love affair work out for this girl of such innocence and purity? Will it end in joy or sorrow? Is there more to this girl than meets the eye? Is she as fragile as she looks, or is there a hidden strength and determination to her?

British director Joanna Hogg uses her own life experiences to produce a film which is mesmerising, xxx and xxx about her early life as a film student, and echoes elements of the painting. Honor Swinton Byrne plays Julie, the awkward, yet privileged film student, whilst Tom Burke plays her suave and sophisticated older boyfriend Anthony. But looks can be deceiving, there is more to Tom’s character than meets the eye, and there is a hidden strength apparent in Honor’s portrayal of Julie. These are world class performances and worthy of all plaudits that both actors have and will receive for this film.

I was transfixed
from the very beginning. I was transported back to the 1980’s, where photographs were limited to the amount of shots you had on a reel of film and where you had to consider what pictures you were going to take. Where the music reignites old memories and forgotten diary entries make you get lost in a past that seems like a dream…where old friends have resurrected themselves into your life, and experiences seem as though they were merely yesterday.

Picture c/o Curzeon Cinema Trailer
Julie is a young aspiring film director. She is trying to pitch her first feature film and she wants it to be based in Sunderland, famed for its shipbuilding in the north of England…a far cry to what she has experienced living in Knightsbridge and her priviledged background. She wants to tell the story of a young boy who is devoted to his mother but experiences traumatic events at a tender age. She is earnest about her ideas and shares them with a stranger who has tagged along with a friend to a party she is throwing.

This dapper stranger is older than her and works at the Foreign Office…or so he says. He carries that suave aloofness of someone in authority, he is dressed for success (complete with a stunning array of bow ties) and Julie is smitten. She might not be carving Anthony’s initials into the trunk of a tree, but she is smitten…and who wouldn’t be? Anthony is a handsome rogue…a man you know you shouldn’t dally with…but his enigmatic smile and come to bed eyes mean you can’t say no to him. He is full of that confident swagger and self-belief that Julie lacks, and therefore when he questions her motives for wanting to make the film she believes in, you question what his motives are and wonder whether he is giving her advice with the benefit of someone older and wiser than she...or whether he just gets a kick out of demeaning her.

It's like watching a car don't want to see the aftermath...but you're compelled to do so.

This nostalgic trip down memory lane which allows us to watch the pertinent events in Joanna Hogg’s life, is rather like watching a car crash in slow motion…you are compelled to keep watching even though you know you are going to be traumatised by the unfolding events. But sometimes we block the bad out of our lives, and we need that mix of the fun times and the bad times to put our lives into perspective. This film is a series of moments in Joanna Hoggs life, detailing how she met her first love and the highs and lows that encounter procured. The cinematography is breath-taking and there is a grainy quality which gives it a less polished effect which adds to the sincerity of the events Hogg has chosen to depict. She also films the characters at a distance, so when there are close up’s they seem to have more impact and are at pivotal points in the “script.”

I say script, but the film relies on the natural improvisation of conversation. I was surprised watching the film to know that this was Honor Swinton Byrne’s first major role. She is so genuine and believable as Julie, a woman desperate to carve out a career for herself in the film industry and becoming smitten with this guy who just walks into her life and turns it upside down. There was a particular scene where I thought “why are you sitting there apologising to him?” Scream. Throw things. Tell him to f*ck off.  But then I remembered what I was like at that age and I imagine in her position I may have done the same. I wasn’t that confident at confronting people back then…and she was in love with someone intent on destroying himself. Shouting at him wouldn’t make the situation better…perhaps she wasn’t as naive as I first thought.

What helps to bring further authenticity to the film, is that it is a real-life mother and daughter (Tilda Swinton & Honor Swinton Byrne) playing out those roles in the film. There is a genuine awkwardness and shame that comes with asking a parent for yet more money whilst lying to cover up why the request has really been made. All of the characters stumble over what to say to each other, repeating themselves when they can’t think of something to say…when not sure of how to finish a sentence it peter’s out as in real life. The awkwardness is further investigated around the dinner table where small talk becomes increasingly unbearable, although there are touches of the lighthearted too. I wondered whether Tom was told to wear the "bandana" or whether that was a moment of improvisation. It certainly made me smile and reminisce about Tom playing Dolokhov in BBC’s War and Peace! These touches give the film it’s voyeuristic feel; it’s like being a fly on a wall watching real life events unfolding in front of you.

Picture c/o Curzeon Cinema Trailer
The start of the blossoming relationship is tenderly sweet. You stifle a giggle when Julie’s mother says, “it’s not that sort of relationship is it?” Anthony persuades Julie to let him stay at her flat, and in a tender bed scene, Anthony complains he has no room…he is on a ledge whilst she clearly has a foot of room on her side. A dividing line is drawn between them with her collection of soft toys (fyi…there is nothing wrong with having an abundance of soft toys in adulthood…just saying.) But you know that Anthony has ulterior motives, it can’t stay a platonic relationship for too long…and as he gifts her some sexy lingerie to procure the next stage in their relationship, you know that ultimately she is going on a fairground ride that will ultimately end in heartbreak.

And what a fairground ride she has! Anthony whisks her away to Venice aboard the Venetian Orient Express. They have matching monogrammed luggage, a beautiful gown to wear at a night at the opera (I’ve still not organised a trip to Teatro La Fenice yet) many things a girl can only dream of; but Julie sits in her opulent hotel room, with Murano glass chandelier, suppressing her tears in this passionate and picturesque place. Perhaps she has already realised that Venice is just a veneer. Strip that away, and what is her relationship with Anthony really like?

Picture c/o Curzeon Cinema Trailer
There is a beautiful scene where Julie puts on a piece of jewellery and shares with Anthony the sentimentality behind it. As we watch Julie slowly come to terms with the darker side of her relationship and move ever further from her gut feelings, we can only sit aghast when we watch her come home to find that her flat has been ransacked, her precious jewellery and camera equipment gone. Her instinct is to turn to Anthony for mutual comfort. It is even more galling when she sits there and apologises to him for his behaviour…but as I said earlier, by this point she has realised that he needs compassion and understanding rather than berating.

I suppose that is the point of the film. We can sit back and tell Julie she is stupid to stay with Anthony, but hindsight is such a wonderful luxury to have. We see Anthony effectively gaslighting Julie, but it is noticeable that neither character actually says “I love you.” Both parties convey a deep love and affection of one another; they respect that neither party is free from fault. It is these subtle nuances to both leads performances that carry you through the film. The moment that Julie is told that Anthony is a heroine addict is particularly poignant. It is that utter disbelief on her face; she recognises that she is being told the truth, but she doesn’t want to believe it.

Whilst the film has this engaging nostalgic feel of someone reminiscing about their past, and it quietly ebbs and flows from one distant memory to another, there are moments which hit particularly hard. Towards the start of their relationship, Julie is stroking Anthony’s arms, noting how she adores his freckles…and then she mentions another mark on his arm and asks how he comes to have it. The audience don’t see the mark so at that point are not sure what she is alluding to, so by the time we learn that Anthony is a habitual heroine user, and we see him stumble down the stairs with red weal’s across his inner arm…you can’t help but be shocked and repulsed by what you are seeing. So imagine being Julie…seeing this happen to someone you are in love with.

Picture c/o Curzeon Cinema Trailer
Days later and I’m still haunted by the animalistic howling of Anthony, bent double, covered in blood, whilst Julie stands watching, trapped and unable to do anything to help. I'm bewildered that Tom Burke filmed this without having to go into therapy afterwards; the role of Anthony must have been draining both mentally and physically. There is playing a tortured soul, and then there is taking on the role of Anthony, for which he should be highly commended.

There is a solid, periodic soundtrack throughout the film which isn’t overbearing, but the odd tune here and there is often pertinent to an aspect of the tale. It really comes into its own as the film continues…when the bars of “Is she really going out with him” ring in the audiences ears, you still can’t help but wonder that if Anthony wasn’t in the clutches of his heroine addiction, could he be an interesting and enigmatic fellow to spend time with?

This is a beautiful film with exquisite performances from both Honor and Tom, that allow the audience to reflect on their past, as they walk through Joanna’s journey to her past self. The film is a slow burn and requires patience to watch. I was rather disgruntled that a couple came into the film late (obviously sat at the far end of the row so everyone had to move to accommodate them) and then after 30 mins they left…making everyone move again. They found the film boring and slow…and then I heard someone snoring, who I think was given a dig in the ribs by their wife, so they stopped. I think they missed the point of the film somewhat, and had they bothered to engage with the film and the characters, they would have seen the subtleties of human life played out in front of them. The film allows the audience to reflect on mistakes and missed opportunities, and to contemplate that no-one in life is ever perfect.  Obviously, it’s horses for courses…just because I found the film a hauntingly beautiful and emotive piece of cinematic excellence, does not mean everyone else will.

The Souvenir is on general release from 30th August 2019 in the UK.
Starring: Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton & Richard Ayoade.
Runtime: approx 119 minutes

Let the arts continue… 🥂🍾

Now, obviously I can’t let the blog end there…after leaving the cinema my friend and I went to find somewhere to have lunch. I asked her what she thought of the film. She enjoyed it, and said it was like the posh bloke’s version of Trainspotting. I told her I was going to nick that comment off her because I found it rather amusing! As we wandered, we saw a sign saying that there was an exhibit of LS Lowry paintings in a gallery around the corner. We thought we would take a gander, not realising this was a gallery where the works were for sale.

As we wandered in we were approached by a lovely lady very elegantly dressed…I suddenly felt very out of place! We explained where we had been and what we had seen, and she offered us both a glass of champagne, so we looked at each other and nodded yes. Two glasses filled to the brim…and not cheap nasty stuff either, she started to tell us about Lowry and some of the works they had on site and some on their catalogue. We were then left to wander amongst the exhibits (£111,000.00? Oh I’ll have two…one either side of the mantelpiece!)

I thought it quite poignant that it was the works of Lowry that were being exhibited bearing in mind the film we had just watched. Julie wanted to set her film in Sunderland, and whilst Lowry is more renowned for his Lancashire mill scenes, he did take his holiday's around Sunderland and his work concentrated on seaside scenes and the playful nature of people on beaches or around the harbour.

As we left, we talked to her again and cheekily mentioned that we had been on the way to find somewhere for lunch. She directed us to a beautiful independent restaurant where we whiled away a couple of hours eating some delicious food, catching up on an enormous amount of gossip, and where the staff pretty much left us alone and weren’t at all intrusive. It was a wonderful day…and one neither of us would have experienced if it wasn’t for Tom and his decision to choose those roles that are always just that little bit off piste! 😉