Starring Honor Swinton Byrne. Rated 14A
Mining one’s past to cast a sharper eye on the present is what most artists do. But standing too close to the subject can obscure your general message while conveying a taste for self-indulgence. Too far away and the emotional value of lived experience is lost.
Writer-director Joanna Hogg gets caught between stools in The Souvenir, a coming-of-age drama that refuses to find its core raison d’être even as it demands increasing patience over a bleakly studied two hours. It’s not as if she hasn’t done her homework; indeed, homework appears to be all she’s done. In capturing her early apprenticeship as a photographer and budding filmmaker in the early 1980s, Hogg went so far as to literally re-create, in an isolated soundstage, the apartment she kept in London’s ritzy Knightsbridge area, and briefly shared with a man who was obviously bad for her.
Here called Julie, Hogg’s alter ego is newcomer Honor Swinton Byrne. And the man in question, called Anthony, is played by Tom Burke, seen as a war-wounded detective in the J.K. Rowling–derived TV series C.B. Strike. Here, he brings sensitivity and physical gravity to an elegant ne’er-do-well who will upend Julie’s life. Burke overpowers Byrne, whose character never defends herself. The same is true when Julie’s aristocratic mother enters the picture, and this affectless first-timer acts opposite her real-life parent Tilda Swinton, who holds the screen in ways her daughter can’t. (Some supporting players are even more amateurish.)
Anthony initially appears ready to bankroll Julie’s first project, but gradually begins draining her account, as well as her already tentative will. And let’s just say that the tracks she sees are not from his tears. He’s casually cruel throughout, even if his ruthless criticism carries some truths. “You sound like somebody backed you into a corner,” he says early on, “and forced you to become a filmmaker.” She has no comeback for this, and that sense of unresolved befuddlement marks this Souvenir as a victim of its own nostalgic obsessions. The movie stares hard into the past, finds it beautifully sad, but still doesn’t know what else to think of the whole damn thing.