In The Souvenir, British writer-director Joanna Hogg (Archipelago) sets us down in a specific time and place—namely, a UK film school in the mid-eighties—and proceeds to immerse us in what could be called a love story, although it’s not clear at first whether the feeling is mutual. The key players are Julie (Honor Swinton Burne), a student in her early twenties working on a thesis film and Anthony (Tom Burke), a mysterious older man she meets at a party. He piques her interest with his casual references to Powell & Pressburger and his trenchant, slightly hostile critiques of her work. The attraction between them
Just when the film is poised to deliver a sermon on toxic masculinity, the story takes a sharp, dramatic turn into unexpected territory, upending our expectations for each character and finally arriving at an emotional epiphany. Burke, who vaguely resembles a young Albert Finney, is the kind of confident, manipulative cad everyone has known at some point in life. Hogg is not above poking fun at this character (especially when skulking around in a pompous greatcoat which doubles as a bathrobe), but not so much that we don’t understand why a girl would fall in love with him. And Burne, shy and pretty and intelligent, is a real discovery as a woman tragically drawn to such a character. When she reads aloud from Ernest Temple Thurston’s The City of Beautiful Nonsense, about the architectural wonders of Venice, you sense a deeply romantic person struggling to vent her artistic impulses. A gray-haired Tilda Swinton lends considerable presence to her scenes as her mother with conservative ideas about cohabitation.
Favoring long takes and semi-improvised dialogue, Hogg, drawing deeply from the well of her own experience, allows the film to feel both naturalistic and rigorously controlled. The effect is like sinking into a novel. There are warm, nostalgic, slightly satirical glimpses of film school presided over by weary, chain-smoking professors. Every detail, from the excitedly pretentious dinner conversation to the way Julie’s bedroom décor slowly becomes more baroque as the relationship progresses, feels absolutely right. The film will no doubt seem slow and aloof to some viewers, but it is painfully alive with the pangs of first love, and the turbulent central relationship gets under your skin. Martin Scorsese signed on as one of the executive producers. A sequel, The Souvenir: Part II, is already in the works. The Landmark, 10850 Pico Blvd., West L.A.; Fri., May 17, various showtimes; $12-$15; (310) 470-0492, landmarktheatres.com.