The thrillingly eccentric Tilda Swinton has added to her legacy by birthing an acting dynasty. Her own exquisite cameo in this movie, The Souvenir, is surprisingly eclipsed by the central character played by her daughter, Honor Swinton Byrne.
This British-American film, written and directed by Joanna Hogg, is a semi fictional (therefore semi biographical?) tale about a privileged and naïve wealthy young woman’s time at film school. Her desire to burst out of her bubble by telling stories about the collapse of the Sunderland working class is woefully embarrassing, yet innocent. Rather than the film inflicting this storyline we are given a way more interesting and engaging tale about the film makers upper class life crashing around her.
Julie, the film maker played by Byrne, teeters through a disastrous relationship with a lush and louche Tom Burke. Fragile as a vase, she is unaware of his habitual heroin use at first. By the time she realizes he has lied to her, stolen from her, and manipulated her they are deep in their own dysfunctional yet real love story.
Their story is understated yet detailed. The low-key pace draws the audience in so that when there is a switch in music and imagery to more gothic drama there is an unexpected excitement. Long periods of sitting room dialogue in London are suddenly cut with blaring opera, overflowing gowns and the baroque architecture of Venice.
The switch in tone and pace is deliberate. Scenes in Julie’s film making class talk about the importance of these swings in the work of Hitchcock etc. We are treated to both a lesson and a demonstration of this in action. After describing how Hitchcock managed to convey horror in the shower scene of Psycho without actually showing the body being hacked up, this film shares the horror of looming death and disease without being explicit. While not a fan of film makers shying away from the threat of HIV, Hepatitis C or overdose this movie manages to convey the full practical implications of heroin use without using it to lazily inject drama.
Byrne manages to play a frustrating fragility without being annoyingly weak. Swinton makes mincemeat of the role of an upper crust mom caring for everyone while tentatively hoping for more for herself. Tom Burke is an embodiment of self-destructive narcissism whose behavior is appalling but not repelling.
The Souvenir plays with the idea of filmmaking but not at the expense of making a good film. It is littered with characters that should be annoying but end up being fascinating. It skillfully avoids feeling like an exclusive insider viewpoint and manages to bring the audience into the craft in action.
Review by Andrew Hebden
Queerguru Correspondent Andrew Hebden is a MEDIA & CULTURAL STUDIES graduate spending his career between London, Beijing and NYC as an expert in media and social trends. As part of the expanding minimalist FIRE movement he recently returned to the UK and lives in Soho. He devotes as much time as possible to the movies, theatre and the gym. His favorite thing is to try something (anything) new every day.