The Souvenir (5 stars)

The Souvenir

EIFF 2019: A difficult romance is the focus of Joanna Hogg's masterful, loosely autobiographical drama

A romance shrouded in mystery and apparently ill-fated is at the heart of Joanna Hogg's typically brilliant fourth film. The British writer-director of Unrelated, Archipelago and Exhibition, who launched the cinematic career of Tom Hiddleston, takes inspiration from her years as a fledgling filmmaker, as we meet a young woman learning her craft whilst dating a secretive, unsuitable gentleman.

Seeking the discomfort of an inexperienced performer, Hogg casts Honor Swinton Byrne – daughter of Tilda Swinton and artist / playwright John Byrne – in her first major role. Set in the early 80s, the actress plays unworldly filmmaking student Julie, who's balancing her artistic experimentation with a fraught relationship with Foreign Office worker Anthony (a fascinating, slippery performance from Tom Burke), with increasing difficulty. Swinton Senior (who worked with Hogg on her 1986 short Caprice, which was Hogg's film school graduation project) appears as Julie's own mother Rosalind, an upper-class woman who's fussy and stiff but loving and supportive in her own way.

Combining a fawn-like fragility with a prissiness that easily betrays her class, Swinton Byrne gives a performance that's so unaffected as to feel almost out of its depth on the big screen – though it ultimately works well, even against Burke's more showy and complex turn. Julia is brimming with good intentions ('I don't want to be in that bubble all my life,' she tells her tutors as she earnestly pitches her Sunderland-set feature) and eager to prove herself, but desperately lacking in canny. Although sensitive and interested in others, she is shown to be someone who looks and looks but doesn't yet see. As the film charts her character's growth, it reveals her lover's weakness.

Hogg delivers the first part of her story (part two is currently being shot) in tantalising, meticulously crafted snatches that resist overt explanation. The director paints a fairly unflattering portrait of her creative evolution, while offering her own unforgettable take on the truism: it's only once we've known heartache that we can turn our hand to art.

Screening on Mon 24 Jun and Wed 26 Jun as part of the Edinburgh International Film Festival 2019. General release from Fri 30 Aug.

The Souvenir

  • 5 stars
  • 2019
  • UK
  • 2h
  • 15
  • Directed by: Joanna Hogg
  • Cast: Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton, Richard Ayoade

Julie (Swinton Byrne) is an unworldly filmmaking student, balancing her work with a fraught relationship with Foreign Office worker Anthony (Burke). Swinton Byrne gives a fine, unaffected performance (with her own mother Swinton as Julie’s stiff but loving mother) and Hogg provides a brilliant, unsparing portrait of her…