The Souvenir begins with a montage of still images that evoke blue-collar bleakness and desolation, then cuts to a lively hipster party where university students are happily intellectualizing and/or getting intoxicated.
These differing moods define the arc of the latest drama by writer-director Joanna Hogg (Unrelated, Archipelago), a coming-of-age piece about a shy film student who is struggling with a big class project: writing and directing her first feature film, one she seems unsuited for.
Possibly embarrassed by her privileged background, Julie (Honor Swinton-Byrne, in her acting debut) has chosen to explore the sense of loss and alienation in the working class world of England’s near-vanished dockyards and the moribund shipbuilding industry that once thrived there. Sensitive but not always articulate, Julie has trouble explaining herself to a film-school supervisor who is grilling her about why she wants to delve into a culture she knows little about.
A bit later we see Julie having a drink with a poshly dressed and well-spoken man, a bit older than her, who is also peppering her with tough questions about her project. It’s only later that it becomes apparent that Anthony (Tom Burke, with a voice reminiscent of Hugh Grant) is a new boyfriend. And as Julie slowly falls into what might be her first serious love affair, we realize that his intellect and charm are cover for a controlling man who is dishonest and damaged.
As Souvenir unfolds, the relationship between Julie and Anthony gradually deteriorates from bantering affection and emotional openness to darkness and dysfunction, with harsh consequences for both.
Moody and downbeat, Souvenir makes few concessions to the “Friday night at the movies” crowd. The director doesn’t connect all the dots, expecting the viewer to do some of the work, including figuring out who people are and what their motivations might be.
The biggest reward comes via the performances, especially that of Swinton-Byrne, who is tender, funny and radiant, and also deeply poignant when her life starts to fall apart. (Film buffs will savour a large cameo by the sublime Tilda Swinton, Swinton-Byrne’s real-life mother, who plays that role in this film.) And those who enjoy music will appreciate a soundtrack that shifts with aplomb from opera to English pop like early Joe Jackson and an apt cover version of Elvis Costello’s “Shipbuilding.”
Note: The Souvenir has its Victoria debut at UVic’s Cinecenta, from June 30 to July 6
Stars: Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton
Directed by: Joanna Hogg
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