Sundance Breakout The Souvenir Is One of the Best Movies of the Year So Far

The Grand Jury Prize winner will get you hyped for the Joanna Hogg Cinematic Universe.

Tom Burke and Honor Swinton-Byrne dine at a fancy establishment in The Souvenir.
Tom Burke and Honor Swinton-Byrne in The Souvenir. Sundance Film Festival

Julie, a 24-year-old film student living in the posh London neighborhood of Knightsbridge in Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, isn’t the easiest protagonist to understand or identify with, but thanks to Honor Swinton Byrne’s open, winning performance, she’s easy to care about. And to fear for: The product of a sheltered upper-class childhood, Julie is so naïve about how the world works that when she spots track marks on the arm of her new live-in boyfriend, Anthony (Tom Burke), she immediately buys his assurance that it’s nothing to worry about. (For his part, Anthony is so confident in Julie’s trust that he scarcely bothers to make up a lie.) Shortly afterward, at dinner with friends, Anthony steps away from the table for a moment, and one of them asks how a hardcore junkie and a straight-laced girl like her are managing to make it work. Still, Julie blinks like a deer in headlights, unable to process the concept that the man she’s just let into her life—an employee of the Foreign Office, an Oxbridge-accented aesthete, and the very model of upper-class composure—might be something as far outside her life experience as a secret heroin addict.

If that setup makes The Souvenir sound like a familiar addiction drama, be assured it’s something much richer and stranger. In her fourth feature film, the 59-year-old Hogg reaches deep into events from her own life story—something several characters in the movie, including both Anthony and Julie’s sometimes-condescending male professor, encourage her younger on-screen self to do. The resulting movie is heterogeneous in style, with long passages of naturalism—overlapping dialogue, the absence of added music—interrupted by startling bursts of visual lyricism, like a recurring close-up of a green satin gown trailing up a flight of stone stairs.

The chronological structure of the story is unusual too, with unmarked leaps forward in time that leave it to the audience to deduce what happened in between. This temporal choppiness can be disorienting, but the sense of being unmoored in time fits with the protagonist’s anxious, drifting mood. Though it’s about a young woman going through the worst experience of her life—a life that, granted, has offered her seemingly little in the way of negative experiences thus far—The Souvenir treats the painful events at its center with a kind of remoteness, as if handling a fragile long-lost object while wearing thick gloves.

Though she’s not out to make a social satire, Hogg is observant about the way class and privilege permeate the characters’ everyday relationships. While Anthony wanders around London spending her parents’ money, Julie sits at an electric typewriter (it’s the 1980s) trying to get her passionate but vague vision of a student film project on paper. It’s a story about a young boy in the poor Northern English city of Sunderland—a setting utterly foreign to her experience, though as the deadline for the project gets closer, the idea will go through several transformations. Julie assures her devoted but unconsciously enabling mother (Tilda Swinton, the actress’ mother in real life) that the money she’s perpetually borrowing is all needed for camera equipment and film stock, and that she’s keeping track of the ever-increasing sum she owes. But whenever Anthony requests “10 quid” for another unexplained late-night walkabout, she slips him the cash, no questions asked.

The Souvenir provides a horrific if sidelong glimpse into the hell of addiction: Anthony is a very high-functioning junkie until he suddenly and spectacularly isn’t, and Burke gives a fearlessly off-putting performance that, while never making the character a simple villain, showcases his most repellent traits. But the bulk of our time is spent with Swinton Byrne’s Julie, who lives very much inside her own head—so much so that when the 1983 car bombing of Harrods department store takes place just outside her window, she registers it primarily as one more noisy interruption in her increasingly chaotic life.

There is some talk of politics at Julie’s parents’ country place, where the terrorist tactics of the IRA are debated over a lunchtime table set with fine crystal. But The Souvenir, a film about memory and art as much as it is about addiction or doomed romance, isn’t primarily concerned with talk. The dialogue, naturalistic to the point of occasional inaudibility, was developed in part by the actors on set in the course of Hogg’s unique rehearsal and shooting process. (She also filmed the whole movie in chronological order.) Above all, The Souvenir seeks to convey its protagonist’s inner state—loneliness, codependency, erotic transport, grief. When, as happens a few times, a decontextualized shot of a sunset seen through trees appears as Swinton Byrne’s voice reads a poem or a passage of prose, we don’t have to stop to ask, “Wait a minute, when did we go to the woods? Who wrote that?” It’s clear from the context that we’re hearing some version of Julie’s interior monologue (in fact, many of these passages come directly from letters written to the younger Hogg by her own real-life “Anthony,” whose identity she has declined to reveal). Like Lynne Ramsay’s 2018 neo-noir You Were Never Really Here (but with less hammer-murdering), The Souvenir trusts the viewer to jump into its impressionistic stream of images, joining the protagonist midthought and leaving us to sort out the imagined from the real. The movie opens on black-and-white film stills from a project that never existed except in Julie’s mind. And then there’s that incongruously gorgeous repeated image of a green satin hem on old stone steps, a fragmented memory of a lovers’ trip to Venice that the audience never learns anything more about but that seems to have a lasting hold on our heroine.

Maybe the most surprising end-credits stinger I’ve seen this year was a sober black-and-white title card at the end of The Souvenir that promised The Souvenir: Part II. Ambiguous, finely shaded autobiographical dramas like this one don’t generally form the cornerstone of an expanded universe. But Honor Swinton Byrne, making her feature film debut, has created a character who’s complex (and at times maddening) enough to deserve further exploration. The problem with the coming-of-age picture is that it often ends just as the protagonist is turning into someone really worth getting to know. The question in the audience’s mind on saying goodbye to Julie—I wonder what’s next for her?—goes double for a writer-director like Joanna Hogg.