Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, released in late summer 2019, just before the curtain fell, is her masterpiece and a great accomplishment of contemporary British cinema. It’s directly autobiographical, the story of Hogg’s relationship when she was in her early twenties with a magnetic, manipulative older man, which impacted the whole course of her life. He claimed to be working for the Foreign Office in a secret capacity; in reality, he was a heroin addict but she was too naive to realise this until she had become completely enmeshed.
The Souvenir was Hogg’s fourth full-length drama. After film school, she had spent 20 years as a jobbing TV director, making episodes of Casualty, London’s Burning and EastEnders. Her debut feature, Unrelated (2007), is a devastating study of a childless woman holidaying with other families in Tuscany. The powerful Archipelago, about a well-to-do family on a trip to the Isles of Scilly, followed in 2011. Her third film, Exhibition (2013), about an arty couple living in a modernist house in Kensington, proved a more difficult, contorted piece.
Hogg has said she wanted to make films doing everything she was told not to do in television. She doesn’t write a full script but a brief story document, allowing improvisation, with the actors not necessarily knowing in advance where the story is going. She casts unknowns alongside professionals. She favours long-held shots in the middle distance, with naturalistic sound, letting scenes play out patiently.
In The Souvenir, the result was sublime. Tom Burke played the deceiver, Anthony, masterfully, being in full possession of the story. As her younger self, Julie, Hogg cast somebody who had never acted before – Honor Swinton Byrne, the 19-year-old daughter of her lifelong friend Tilda Swinton. Hogg has confirmed she did not reveal to Swinton Byrne where the story was headed, making her incomprehension quite real, her innocence desperately affecting.
Hogg had nurtured this project since the late 1980s, remaining mystified by this man – and has said that she was liberated to make it finally by the realisation she only needed to tell her side of the story. As such, The Souvenir feels dramatically complete, even though it leaves all questions about Anthony unanswered.
Yet Hogg always intended the film to be in two parts. Here is Part II, tracing Julie’s path through film school, as she takes back her life, recovers her voice and confidence. The girl told by her lover “you’re lost and you’ll always be lost” begins to find herself and become the narrator of her own history. Having planned a film about ordinary life in Sunderland, Julie now wants to make this affair into the subject of her graduation short. Her patronising all-male lecturers tell her she can’t, her work is unprofessional and her script has no structure – but fellow film student and wannabe director Patrick (Richard Ayoade) urges her on, though remaining otherwise superbly dicky, delivering himself of such lines as “you’re forcing me to have a tantrum”.
We see Julie filming this project as realistically as she can, but her baffled cast and crew question her about the story and the plausibility of not realising the truth about Anthony for so long. But the film ends up quite different from the one we’ve seen being made: a brightly coloured, dreamlike fantasia, starring herself and the resurrected Anthony (Tom Burke again), re-enacting their fate. She totes a camera like a gun.
A Bildungsroman, then. Clearly for Hogg, The Souvenir Part II had to be made: the picture was always a diptych, the return essential. For the viewer, it feels less necessary, more of a coda. Whereas the absolute specificity of the first part, the wounded detail, is precisely what made it universal, here there is a self-regard that makes it less shareable.
Swinton Byrne, now 24, has a different relation with her role here, her inexperience no longer the primary asset it was in Part 1. The film is beautifully made, and there are treasurable scenes, especially those with Julie and her kind, slightly distant parents (Tilda Swinton plays her mother, Rosalind; a Norfolk farmer, James Spencer Ashworth, plays her father again too.) Julie’s continuing naivety is touchingly revealed when she propositions the editor of her film (Joe Alwyn), only for him to tell her he needs to go home to cook dinner for his unwell boyfriend.
Everybody who has seen The Souvenir will be curious about this sequel. Perhaps it is only fitting, rather than sharply ironic, that what it lacks is the toxic glamour of that strange, bad man.
“The Souvenir Part II” is in cinemas now
This article appears in the 02 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Going Under