Written by Michael Clawson
Sometimes the smallest painting in a gallery or museum is the one that moves you most, the one you find yourself thinking about more than any large piece you might also have come across. Similarly, size doesn’t necessarily correlate with impact at the movies. The Souvenir, director Joanna Hogg’s follow-up to her 2013 feature Exhibition, may be one of the smallest movies exhibited in Seattle theatres by certain measures, but it’s a masterpiece whose scale belies its immense, wrenching beauty.
Set in 1980s Britain, it portrays the toxic relationship between Julie, an earnest but timid film student from an upper middle class family, played with magnificent, deeply moving nuance by relative newcomer Honor Swinton Byrne (the daughter of Tilda Swinton, who plays Julie’s mother), and Anthony (Tom Burke, also very good), pretentious, manipulative, and unbeknownst to Julie when they get together, a heroin addict.
Hogg elides the sensationalism that premise might ordinarily entail. She approaches her main two characters and their relationship elliptically, attuned with supreme sensitivity to how moments of no great size – afternoon tea, dinners with their parents – reveal the contours of Julie’s and Anthony’s relationship, and, in particular, Julie’s naïveté and ignorance of Anthony’s selfishness and deceit.
Hogg demonstrated a keen eye for striking compositions in Exhibition (that movie also took art and a dysfunctional relationship as its subject matter, albeit with a very different, absurdly comic tone) but her work in The Souvenir with cinematographer David Raedeker is exceptional, and consistently so. The images are grainy, the color palette muted. Hogg shoots from various angles and distances (her camera’s typically fixed) to best allow the emotion implied by Byrne’s gestures and mannerisms – her clutching a stuffed animal, her struggling to articulate the idea behind her film – to reverberate within the frame. A tiled mirror in Julie’s flat is often used quite effectively, as are other reflective surfaces – puddles, windows – but the occasional landscape shots are equally breathtaking.
A work of supremely intelligent restraint, The Souvenir may be deemed a small movie, but it’s an essential one.
The Souvenir Trailer
The Souvenir is currently streaming on Hoopla, Kanopy, and Prime Video.