The Souvenir (15) | Close-Up Film Review

Dir. Joanna Hogg, UK/US, 2019, 120 mins

Cast:  Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilde Swinton

Review by Carol Allen

Joanna Hogg was in her late forties when, after a successful career as a television director, she wrote and directed her first feature film Unrelated (2007).  Women directors are in short supply.  They were even more so twelve years ago.   So I really wanted to like it. 

But unlike some of the other critics, I found it dull, slow and its characters unengaging.  I had pretty much the same response to her subsequent work.  In Ms. Hogg’s favour she doesn’t indulge in the downbeat, rather self-flagellating miserabalism of many low budget British movies.  Her characters and stories are unashamedly set in her own upper middle class world and experience and why not?   But why do they have to be so boring and excluding?

Maybe, I hoped, her latest and fourth film The Souvenir will cause me to revise my opinion. Sadly it doesn’t.

The story is autobiographical – a fictionalised retelling of a relationship Hogg had when she was a very young woman.  Set in the 80s – something you have to deduce from the artefacts such as telephones and typewriters – Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) is a young film student living in a very nice flat in Knightsbridge owned by her parents.   She meets Anthony (Tom Burke) a charismatic older man – well, he’s 29 – who says he works in the Foreign Office.  She is awed by his sophistication – he introduces her to the Jean-Honoré Fragonard portrait of the title, which shows a lovelorn looking young woman carving an initial into a tree trunk and which we are presumably intended to see as a symbolic representation of Julie.  He also totally dominates her in a most unhealthy way, a domination which continues even after she realises that he is a serious drug addict, which accounts for his increasingly erratic behaviour.

It is a promising premise for a story and could have been the basis for a strong human drama.   But not the way Ms. Hogg handles her material.  Her preferred way of working is to allow the actors to improvise around a situation and then pick the best bits.  It’s a technique that can work well in some hands.  A good example was Dominic Savage’s 2017 film The Escape, in which Gemma Arterton played a woman trapped in an unhappy marriage.  Not so though the way Ms. Hogg does it.  She avoids close ups like the plague, preferring to shoot at a distance with low naturalistic lighting, which mitigates against anything so vulgar as allowing us to get involved in her characters.

Most importantly in this film in a particular she avoids any attempt at coherent narrative.  One scene follows another in a disjointed and almost random fashion rather than adding to and developing the story.   Minor characters pop up in one scene for no particular reason, adding nothing much to our understanding, and then disappear.

Swinton Byrne is the real life daughter of Hogg’s good friend Tilda Swinton, who makes an occasional appearance in the role of Julia’s mother, lending the film a little energy.  Not so her daughter, who has never acted before.  Julia comes over as passive and not very interesting.  The only moment of humour in the story may well be unintentional, when Julie’s tutor at film school chides her for not having thought about the budget for the project she’s planning in a desultory way.   “But then”, he says, “I suppose you don’t have to worry about budget in Knightsbridge”.

It would be unfair to apportion any blame to the actors, who are doing their best to carry out their director’s intentions.   And not everyone shares my opinion of Ms. Hogg’s work.  Fellow film maker Martin Scorsese is such a fan that he acted as executive producer on The Souvenir, which must have been a great asset when seeking the finance, while many critics, both in the UK and America have heaped praise upon this film and Ms. Hogg’s previous work, with expressions such as “an absolute joy to watch”;  “an artefact in the highest auteur register”;  ““a richly nuanced psychological portrait”  “emotionally and sometimes wince-inducingly acute”;  “mysterious, enigmatic, with things left unsaid”; while one critic enthusiastically hailed  “Ms. Hogg’s lack of interest in storytelling conventions.”

This last is one of the main reasons I find her films so dull and alienating.   I can understand a resistance to the formulaic, screenwriting guru dictated product we so often get, particularly from Hollywood, but to appear to deliberately exclude the viewer from engaging with your film implies an arrogant and self indulgent disregard for your audience.

Ms. Hogg is now in the process of preparing her next film, which will continue her fictionalised autobiography.  I doubt I will be in the queue of those eager to see it.