Remember the name Honor Swinton Byrne — her star is born. In The Souvenir, she plays Julie, a film student in 1980s London who’s being set up to learn a lot of things the hard way. Written and directed by the bracingly brilliant Joanna Hogg, this delicate, dazzling memoir traces her own origin story, and there is something superheroic about her struggle to look back without hitting the brick wall of formula and weepy nostalgia. In her fourth feature, following Unrelated (2007), Archipelago (2010) and Exhibition (2013), Hogg refuses to hand-hold her audience, shifting around in time and space in ways that force us to connect the puzzle pieces.
It helps enormously that the 24-year-old Swinton Byrne, in a breakout debut performance, plays this young woman with such a striking blend of naivete and inchoate passion. (She’s the daughter of Tilda Swinton, who plays Julie’s wealthy mother Rosalind — a supporting role to which the Oscar-winner brings major dimensions.) Julie feels being rich is getting in the way of her art since her privilege is ill-suited to the working-class film she is making: a student project about a boy growing up in the slums. It’s a story set around the dying shipbuilding industry in the age of early Thatcher. What can Julie, always keeping her distance at parties and in life, know of that?
Her inferiority complex intensifies when she meets Anthony, an alternately fascinating and repellant older man played by the excellent Tom Burke with a mesmerizing air of mystery. Hogg’s camera — David Raedeker did the beautifully desaturated cinematography — is always viewing Anthony from oblique angles, as if he’s as out of focus for Julie as he is to us. As this compelling stranger wheedles his way into Julie’s life, judging her harshly and mansplaining in an irritatingly posh accent, you want to tell her to run. Instead he moves in and borrows money; during a dishy dinner party with his friends, Julie finds out that he also harbors dangerous secrets. Does he really work for the government? And what do his weaknesses expose about his personality? Hogg is circumspect about doling out details. You’d do well to remember that The Souvenir is really the portrait of an artist as a young woman.
And Hogg is catching that woman in the hypnotic act of inventing herself, first as a student struggling to discover her own film language and then as a lover who must find the strength to break out of a self-imposed bubble. The movie lets the action play out in long takes until we almost breathe with Julie — and in those profoundly intimate moments, we watch as she learns that art and love both have the power to wound as well as heal. The effect is shattering. There’s a sequel to The Souvenir already in the works, with Robert Pattinson in the mix. It can’t come soon enough.