Published Jun 06, 2019Before she was a favourite among cinephiles, extremely British director Joanna Hogg spent her post-film school decades working in television, helming episodes of shows like Casualty, London Bridge and even EastEnders. Then, frustrated with the limitations of television, she decided to branch out and break the rules with 2008's Unrelated, her critically acclaimed feature debut.
That film and its followups — 2010's Archipelago and 2013's Exhibition — were important for myriad ways. In addition to introducing the world to a young actor named Tom Hiddleston, who appeared in all three projects, the works established Hogg as a distinguished cinematic voice, thanks to her penchant for long scenes, minimal camerawork and arguably absent storytelling. The films are character studies that skip exposition in favour of emotional presence, and as a result, they're endlessly rewarding, whether you enjoy them or not.
Enter The Souvenir, Hogg's big breakthrough, and arguably her most personal film to date. Somewhat autobiographical, the film follows Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) as a young film student who's somewhat eager to escape the privileged upbringing bestowed upon her by her mother Rosalind (Honor's real-life mother Tilda Swinton).
In her search for authenticity, she falls for Anthony, who presents himself as a former art student turned political diplomat. He quickly moves into her flat, and his financial situation and chatty friend Patrick (Richard Ayoade) awaken Julie to the reality of his situation — he's severely addicted to heroin, and he's taking advantage of her financial comfort to get his fix.
It's a delicious set up for what could be a tense romantic thriller or a twisted drama. Instead, as with Hogg's previous work, The Souvenir is a moody, brooding piece that moves at a glacial pace and almost intentionally seems to obfuscate the narrative. It looks exquisite and there's plenty to ponder as it unfolds, but it lacks the things that made her previous films so enjoyable. Archipelago broke up its lengthy drama scenes with painfully awkward black comedy, while Exhibition fought potential doldrums by delighting the viewer with drool-worthy architecture. Unrelated, still Hogg's best work, had an incredibly sympathetic lead, giving us plenty to latch onto emotionally as we tried to parse the plot points.
Here, her posh protagonists are not as immediately lovable, so it's more difficult to connect with the material. As a result, some viewers may check out of The Souvenir completely as it unfolds.
Regardless, The Souvenir has achieved a great deal of acclaim and production has already begun on a sequel, signalling a somewhat ironic return to the episodic format for Hogg. If we view The Souvenir as a pilot, it certainly marks the arrival of a fascinating new series.