The Souvenir: Whatever Common People Do, by David Bax
This review originally ran as part of our Sundance 2019 coverage.
So much of the recent filmed fiction set in the 1980s has been more an attempt to bottle an imagine collective memory of the era than any actual, tactile transportation. Joanna Hogg’s magnetic, gentle and magnificent The Souvenir feels different and not just because it gathers its music cues from outside the top 40; sure, The Pretenders and Joe Jackson are not unfamiliar choices but The Specials, The Fall and Jona Lewie are not likely to show up on the soundtrack of the next It movie (for that matter, neither is Glenn Miller, who also makes an appearance here). Yet the specificity of those choices is indicative of Hogg’s assured storytelling instincts. The Souvenir is set in the 1980s simply because it feels like it has to be.
Honor Swinton-Byrne plays Julie, a film student from a rich family who, between researching a planned feature about shipbuilders in northern England, attends parties with the rest of the young art crowd and literati. That, presumably, is how she came to know Anthony (Tom Burke); by the time we meet them, they are already bonding over movies and paintings. It’s not until they are well-submerged in a proper relationship, though, that the sheltered Julie realizes her beau is a heroin addict.
One song not heard in The Souvenir (because it wouldn’t be recorded for more than a decade after the movie takes place) but that I kept thinking of nevertheless is Pulp’s “Common People.” Rousing and catchy as that tune is, it’s always grated on me by condemning class tourism while participating in the same patronization that it mocks. Hogg is, luckily for us, more self-aware than Jarvis Cocker. Julie’s well-meaning condescension in her attitude toward Sunderland shipwrights is not excused, much less glorified. But her repeated inability to connect her political aims with her personal, artistic ones is, to some extent, explained when Hogg shows us Julie’s family discussing The Troubles. Their views are legitimate and even informed but what stands out is their calm dispassion about the subject, a privilege of those to whom most strife exists in the abstract. Politics, to them, is all theory.
Not without a sense of irony, Hogg and cinematographer David Raedeker shoot the film at a similar remove. In mostly static, reserved frames, the camera steadfastly avoids subjectivity. Except, that is, for a handful of shots that are closer, looser and more forthrightly emotional and on a grainier stock. One imagines that these might be the moments that will come to stand out in Julie’s mind, or even that they are flash forwards to embellished memories, breaks from the movie’s reality.
Setting the film in the past means that, subtextually, The Souvenir is constantly preoccupied with Julie’s future and how she will look back on these days and her time with Anthony. Will she remember him for his disease and how much of her energy and trust it consumed? Or will she remember him as the dashing, droll young man she first met, with a cigarette forever cupped in a loose fist? One of Julie and Anthony’s sophisticated friends sums up Tolstoy’s definition of art as the process of first having a feeling and then finding a way to express it to others. Whenever Julie finally sheds her naiveté enough to do so, she will have earned it.