At our previous festival in November 2019, we were thrilled to host a screening of The Souvenir, along with a specially-filmed introduction from Honor Swinton Byrne and a post-screening Q&A with Crispin Buxton, the film’s Locations Manager & Associate Producer. Here is a review of the screening written by one of our volunteers, Phil Longwell…
There is a pivotal moment about one third of the way through Joanna Hogg’s latest film, ‘The Souvenir’. It comes courtesy of a scene-stealing cameo appearance by Richard Ayoade, during which he berates the lack of good British musicals. The actual revelation is obvious to his character, but a bombshell to Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne). The young wannabe filmmaker from a privileged background had begun a seemingly innocent relationship with the older Cambridge educated Anthony (Tom Burke), who claims to work for the Foreign Office. His smart and seemingly sophisticated, charming air comes with an aloof and somewhat arrogant persona. Whilst we can see the attraction for Julie, as Anthony provides some stability to her insecurity and makes her laugh, but the audience might have reservations from the beginning about his motives. Anthony has a lot of input into Julie’s blossoming ambitions and keeps her motivated, despite his pointed criticisms and knock backs from some sceptical film producers, who query not wanting to create a story closer to her own experiences. We can see seduction taking place and Anthony’s initial generosity, which includes a trip to the Wallace Collection to see a painting by Fragonard – ‘The Souvenir’ of the title – and to Venice. We meet both sets of parents, including Julie’s ‘conservative’ mother (Tilda Swinton) who insists they have separate bedrooms. We are reminded of the early eighties’ era through a typewriter which literally punctuates the narrative and dated film cameras. ‘Ghost Town’, ‘Stop The Calvary’ and most important to Julie’s film idea, ‘Shipbuilding’ (as sung by Robert Wyatt) pepper the movie with songs from that time. There is also some operatic injections and classical pieces, which remind us we are predominantly in middle (upper) class territory.
We are drip-fed evidence of Anthony’s troubles, as there is bruising to his arms, he borrows the odd tenner, then tellingly allows Julie to start paying for dinner. Furthermore, a burglary is not all it seems. She remains besotted and persists in hanging in there as she has ‘invested’ so much into the relationship. But it’s not the hope that kills in the end.
It’s an intriguing piece of personal storytelling, made even more remarkable by the fact there was no script. Hogg’s possibly unique style is to mix actors with non-actors, use improvisation techniques and get genuine reactions. We are, therefore, watching the main characters learn developments in the story organically, as they are being filmed, without knowing how things will pan out. What is unsaid speaks volumes as they digest the new information. Equally characteristic are the lingering fixed camera shots which make the audience feel like they are intruding in a fly-on-the-wall style drama. Extensive serene outdoor shots mirror the inner turmoil of her characters.
Hogg’s semi-autobiographical tale is raw and drawn from her own memories. It is clearly a film that needed to look and feel just right. According to Associate Producer/Location Manager, Crispin Buxton, in the Q&A afterwards, from Joanna’s perspective she had the awareness early on that here was her personal story that would one day be told, naturally on film. All the apartment scenes were shot in an aircraft hangar in West Raynham, Norfolk. The meticulous attention to detail were created by replicating Joanna’s flat in Knightsbridge, using floor plans and all the props in that set were her actual possessions.
Honor could not attend the showing in person, but kindly recorded a video message whilst holding the stuffed toys featured in the film and told the Norwich audience she was there in spirit. She also revealed a sequel, already principally filmed, would begin two days after the events of the first.
Written by Phil Longwell (@teacherphili)