Manipulation is difficult to portray convincingly, because the act of being manipulated seems so absurd to anyone but the victim, and at any time except the active moment. But The Souvenir does a fine job of showing how a young film student, Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), from an upper-crust background (“I suppose you don’t have to think about budgets much in Knightsbridge,” one teacher quips) is manipulated by a mysterious con man, Antony (Tom Burke), whose own background is even more mysterious than his motives.
He professes to have professional secrets, to be well connected, and puts on a stylish front. But this conceals a dark nature and an intention to use Julie for her time, money, and trust which never becomes so cartoonishly blatant (one possible exception aside) that you can’t believe that Julie, as much as she shouldn’t trust him, would and would want to. And, just as the film’s story is drawn from writer-director Joanna Hogg’s own background, so we get hints of how Julie’s own art is and will be influenced by her time with Antony.
At the start, she announces her intention to make a film about the coming-of-age of a working-class boy in the industrial town of Sunderland (as far from her own experience as one could imagine), but by the end—and a perfectly timed ending it is, one of those cases where I thought, “please end here, this is the perfect place to end,” and it did—she has come to reconcile the gulf between her experiences and the art she wants to make. A recurring motif in the film has Julie continually peering out the window of her (lush) apartment, as if trying to grasp the greater world from her gilded cage (or ivory tower, as the case may be); at the end, she faces the world directly, without a pane of glass to shield her.
That the film works so well is due to any number of factors. Hogg’s sharp-eyed, empathetic direction, encompassing romanticism and gritty realism, and thoughtful, often poetic script, hearkening back to the stylized neorealism of British cinema in the 80s (the period in which Hogg’s own career began and when the film takes place), are key elements, but David Raedeker’s gorgeous cinematography (the use of lighting is really incredible at times) and Helle Le Fevre’s crisp editing are as well; one brilliant touch early on has the film stock suddenly change so that we catch a glimpse of Antony in blurry, handheld Super 8—suggesting that even now these lived moments are being transmuted, at some level, into art.
Kudos also to the subtly convincing production design and the costumes, and the well-chosen soundtrack; the 80s are effectively evoked throughout without ever resorting to gross signifiers.
But the real key to the film’s success lies in its two central performances. Byrne clearly has inherited some of her mother Tilda’s acting ability (and in another touch that blurs the line between art and reality, Tilda herself appears as Julie’s doting, almost infantilizing mother), and she depicts Julie’s naïveté without making a sap of her, poignantly showing how she gradually cedes ground (literally and figuratively) to Antony, wanting to trust and believe, learning bitter lessons one moment and trying to rationalize overlooking them the next.
And Burke—who strongly reminds me of a young Stacy Keach—draws us and Julie in with Antony’s snarky wit and seeming blunt honesty, revealing by degrees the less savory qualities underneath; one seemingly minor scene, where Antony has one drink too many whilst dining with Julie’s family, says volumes about the foothold he’s able to gain and hold on the situation. Even when it’s clear he’s lying or just saying what Julie wants to hear, Burke is so straightforward in his delivery that you understand completely why she would take him at his word. It’s a fantastic performance.
And it’s a fantastic film. It’s not flawless; the measured style and episodic storytelling make it a slightly chilly experience at times, and there’s one plot point which seems overly glossed over (or perhaps I just couldn’t make out the dialogue). And if you’re weary of films about filmmakers/writers/artists/etc., it probably won’t be to your taste. But all things considered it’s one of the better films I’ve seen so far this year, and one worth your time if it’s playing near you—the imagery alone is reason enough to see it in a theater.
After finishing my review, I discovered that a sequel, provisionally entitled The Souvenir Part II, is in production. I look forward to it.