People who want to tell the story of their youth usually write memoirs; seldom do they make movies. With The Souvenir, English filmmaker Joanna Hogg re-creates some version of her own experience as a film student in early 1980s London. Yet the movie feels less autobiographical than simply lived-in, a burnished tilting mirror reflecting the changing nature of memory itself.
Aspiring filmmaker Julie—played, in a lustrous, understated performance, by Honor Swinton Byrne—lives in a house in fashionable Knightsbridge that’s funded with family money; her exceedingly dignified mother (Tilda Swinton, Byrne’s mother in real life) swoops in now and then to check on things.
But Julie wants to push herself out of that nest. Her dream is to make “real” stories about working-class people, though she fails to see that her ambitions are marbled through with youthful, naive condescension. She meets a similarly posh young man, Anthony (Tom Burke, superb and mysterious in a challenging role), who’s a little older and has a job in the Foreign Office. Over a fancy lunch, he listens to Julie as she lets her aspirations fly. Then he offers his own patronizing observations, informing her that he, personally, is a fan of the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger—as if his erudition were a gift to her, the same as, or better than, a bouquet of flowers.
What ambitious young woman hasn’t met a guy like that? But before long, Julie falls in love with Anthony—and if he talks down to her, he does sometimes ask probing questions that help her clarify her ideas. He also harbors a destructive secret, one that threatens to damage Julie too. And it’s the secret—the way Julie lives with it, as you’d condition yourself to live with a leaky roof or a cracked window—that gives The Souvenir its smoky aura of wistfulness.
Hogg has made a gorgeous, haunting movie drawn from a very real place and time: Julie goes to parties where the Specials’ “Ghost Town” wafts through the air; there’s a fleeting but jolting reference to the IRA’s 1983 bombing of Harrods. But The Souvenir is really about love, the tainted kind—and about how sometimes even the people who seem to be subtracting from us are in fact leaving us with something, a thing whose value doesn’t reveal its complicated sparkle until years later.