Love is a mystery, and writer-director Joanna Hogg’s unsettling and heartbreakingly beautiful drama “The Souvenir” plunges the audience and her leading character deep into that mystery.
That character is Julie, played by Honor Swinton Byrne in a radiant starring debut. Julie is a film student in London in the 1980s. She’s doing all the typical things a college student would do: Maintains an apartment with a flatmate (Jack McMullen), has parties with friends, and borrows money from time to time from her mum (played by Swinton Byrne’s real-life mother, Tilda Swinton).
Julie’s life changes when she meets Anthony (Tom Burke), who’s unlike the college boys she’s met before. He’s older, has a job in the Foreign Office, and seems to come from money. He wines and dines her in fancy restaurants, takes her to art galleries and gala functions, and shows her a world of wealth and refinement. Falling in love happens slowly, gradually, but the effect is no less powerful.
Even though Julie’s in love, some things don’t add up — like why Anthony, who’s so rich, is often borrowing money from her, then going out alone for hours on end. There is an explanation, delivered by an old friend of Anthony’s (Richard Ayoade), that changes Julie’s, and our, understanding of everything that has gone before.
Hogg’s spare script gives Julie room to explore her feelings for Anthony, and whether she’s losing herself in her relationship with him. Hogg gives us many scenes where all the emotional impact is conveyed through Swinton Byrne’s quicksilver expressions. The 21-year-old actor has a more down-to-earth beauty than her ethereal mom, and she employs it here to give Julie both warmth and intelligence as she navigates her way through a tempestuous love affair. Meanwhile, Tilda Swinton subsumes herself in what may be her most challenging character yet: An ordinary suburban mom.
Hogg is promising a sequel to “The Souvenir,” and there is nothing more intriguing than another chapter in Julie’s life, as she blossoms into the person she will become. The first chapter shows much promise for Julie, and for the veteran Hogg’s ability to transform the familiar coming-of-age drama into something that’s quietly breathtaking.
Opened May 17 in select cities; opens Friday, June 7, at the Broadway Centre Cinemas (Salt Lake City). Rated R for some sexuality, graphic nudity, drug material and language. Running time: 120 minutes.