Joanna Hogg is the British filmmaker who has established her career with three excellent films: Unrelated (2007), Archipelago (2010) – both of which starred Tom Hiddleston – and Exhibition (2013). But nothing she’s made to date quite touches her latest film, The Souvenir, a silky memoir that has an intensely claustrophobic and unsettling feel to it.
Recalling Hogg’s own days as a film student in London, it stars newcomer Honor Swinton Byrne as Julie, who comes from a well-to-do background and lives in a Mayfair flat. While this is the sort of set-up that might alienate some viewers – it’s hard to sympathize with such privilege – Hogg swiftly engages us with the crux of the story.
At a party, Julie meets Anthony (Strike’s Tom Burke). He’s older than her, and extremely enigmatic, but there’s something amiss about his behaviour. No spoilers here; suffice it to say, The Souvenir is not a thriller flush with secrets and lies. Rather, it’s about the unknowable and just how it’s impossible to understand everything about those closest to you.
Swinton Byrne, in her first role, is a very malleable presence; she leaves her emotions open and raw and Hogg pushes her, gently, towards some exposing moments. Perhaps her innate talent is no surprise. She’s the daughter of Tilda Swinton, an old friend of Hogg’s, who makes an appearance here as Julie’s mother (both are returning for the just-shot sequel, The Souvenir: Part II).
It is, however, Tom Burke that steals the show, as the troubled Anthony. While Burke has put himself in the hands of auteurs before – notably in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives – this role allows him to truly flex his acting muscles. It’s one of the great character performances of the year.
Hogg also smartly handles the era. Set in the 1980s, it never feels like a retro piece, with loud fashions and New Romantic music playing in the background. Only occasionally does history impinge upon proceedings – such as when we hear an explosion far below Julie’s flat. It is, of course, the infamous Harrods’ bombing, an event so cleverly handled by Hogg.
Really, The Souvenir is about memories of the past, formative moments that shaped the creator’s imagination, personality and emotional life. As such it’s a fascinating slice of auto-fiction, every bit as provocative in its own way as Pedro Almodóvar’s just-released Pain & Glory.
The Souvenir opens on 30 August. For more details, visit Curzon.