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Well-paced film ‘The Souvenir’ is a fascinating fly-on-the-wall character portrait

4 out of 5 stars

“The Souvenir” is a 2019 drama/romance film from director Joanna Hogg that depicts a girl attempting to become a filmmaker while also falling in love with a problematic drug-addicted but charming and attractive man set in 1980s England. The film stars Honor Swinton Byrne as main character Julie and Tom Burke as Anthony, the man she falls in love with. Tilda Swinton also appears as Julie’s mother Rosalind. The movie is a quiet, tender and at times wrenching portrayal of Julie’s attempts to navigate the changing world of one’s 20s that is no less chaotic given her career ambitions and difficult relationships. On several fronts, the movie succeeds; from the deliberate pace of the cinematography to the compelling work of Swinton Byrne and company, it is a strong drama that delivers plenty of despairing punches.

A staple of “The Souvenir” is its unhurried camera work, with cameras often being set up a distance away from the characters and remaining unmoved during the dialogue. Different scenes bring the viewer closer or further from the action. During parties with friends in Julie’s apartment, camera shots bounce around people sitting together hovering below eyeline. But then during scenes that occur during the daytime, like Julie meeting Anthony for lunch, the camera stays in one position without cutting, which works quite well in building a fragile tightness as the actors continue their lines 30 to 40 seconds into a shot.

Given Julie’s enrollment in art school, there is a certain art-school vibe to the movie, aided by the experimental camera work, lighting, and character development. The movie visually looks as if it was shot with an older film camera, with most shots looking grainy or hazy, with the style compounding with extended shots of city lights at night, which turn to amorphous clouds of brightness. For many of the scenes, the actors are mostly quiet, looking at things outside or working. Much of the story and character development is told through their moments of reservation. What is important in the movie specifically is Julie’s responses to her world, portrayed through speech, body language, and action. 

Julie and Anthony’s relationship is of importance for the quality of the film as well, being that they are the two most prominent characters. What is apparent early on is that Julie doesn’t recognize Anthony’s habit and he does a decent job concealing it, though she lends him money a concerning number of times without asking. The minimalist aesthetic of the dialogue and action gives the impression that there is little evidence of Anthony’s wrongdoing in an interesting way; because we don’t see much happening, we can understand how Julie might not notice too.

Julie’s story is a big part of what makes “The Souvenir” successful. She struggles in film school and with Anthony, learning hard lessons from both. The movie owes its gripping qualities to Julie’s slight, subtle actions, and Swinton Byrne’s performance is what fills these moments below the center of action with the magic that captivating movies are made of.


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