The Souvenir A Film Review

The Souvenir Director Joanna Hogg 2019 UK/USA 2hrs Cert. 15

Writer. Joanna Hogg

Honor Swinton Byrne as Julie, Tom Burke as Anthony, Tilda Swinton as Rosalind, Richard Ayoade as Patrick, Jaygann Ayeh as Marland, Jack McMullen as Jack, Hannah Ashby Ward as Tracey, Frankie Wilson as Frankie, Barbara Peirson as Anthony’s Mother, James Dodds as Anthony’s Father, Ariane Labed as Garance.

The Souvenir

Julie meets Anthony, who works at the Foreign Office, and he moves in with her after her roommate leaves. He delivers a postcard with a picture of the girl in “The Souvenir”. He later takes her to the London Gallery where the painting is hung. Julie says the girl looks sad, while Anthony says she looks determined. Beginning as a normal early twenty something relationship a foreign office apparatchiks nonsensical privileged buffoon; a touch hard but you’ll follow my meaning later, Antony conceals from Julie a girl from a wealthy farming family his drug habit. So begins the journey of betrayal and the delusional conceit warps the malleable minds of the protagonists as they try to forge realism by different means in this coming of age melodrama with more than a mirror of the image the title is borrowing.

Subjective artifice

This is a tragic symbiotic well dramatised screenplay based around a painting authored by the versatile Director Joanna Hogg in a Martin Scorsese production with BBC Films and BFI support. Set in eighties London it is in some part a memory of the Director Author but made into a English melodrama of a kind. The aim is to show more than the elements of a young romance. It ostensibly tries to put across in this story the complexities of the art of artifice in life as well as what seems to reflect the authors own experiences of her empowerment through the medium of film. Director of Photography David Raedaker summons up some painterly scenes as a fluid narrative roster of cinematic techniques none of which deflect you from the unfolding power of the piece. It is interspersed with what appear to be diary entries by Julie.

Painterly hand

The 16th century painting the essence of the film is based around is The Souvenir by Jean-Honoré Fragonard which is a small romantic oil painting on panel which is presently under restoration at the Wallace Collection Manchester Square. I remember The Swing by Jean-Honoré Fragonard but not the former unfortunately as it conveys what this film tries to convey about art it’s conception, it’s disadvantage of being unreal but woven with the thought and purpose of communication of feelings as the artifice of film – so the arch sets out to show. The letter the young woman Julie is holding is a note she responds, lost in nature and carving a love note on a tree while her obedient dog; Spaniel equals fidelity, watches his mistresses purposefulness. The paradox of love being ethereal and not present without hardship and overcoming the singularity a relationship needs. This is a woman claiming in art, her representation while the painter observes and propels us to think on what we observe. Whether this film achieves this is the challenge.

The depiction of this woman is also conveying status and a muse is the artists medium in that Jean-Honoré Fragonard himself survived successfully into later life expressing exuberantly to the society of the time – as this film tries in parallel to do – observations and realisations of emotional themes.

The ornament of art

When sold in 1792 in went under the original title ‘Lettres de deux amans habitans d’une petite ville au pied des Alpes’ (“Letters from two lovers living in a small town at the foot of the Alps”). A book in which the girl is Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s heroine Julie. It would have been a flavour of the rococo nature of the film to follow had it that as its title.

The rocaille meets the barocco of the style Jean-Honoré Fragonard excelled in finding his style sensible of the times.

So far so complicated.

The art of unspoken words

The film is an august attempt charging the main character Julie with the dilemma of loves needs and possibilities by using the industrial strength acid LSD deflowering of the masculine throes of tormented Antony floundering empowerment in its waste. Shelley comes to mind in the intercept of costume department, furniture styling and lack of proportionality n the Byron device.

Stronger were the woman’s survival and womanly instincts coming through. The rational of French 16th century society turning in the Revolution Is sanguine but not trite in its exploration of to depict softer emotions of love, pity, sympathy and grief, a type of emotional sensitivity which as we digress the French excel. Take ‘Macron’ic personas proliferation (G7 Iran Brazil) and even imitation of ‘old guard’ Napoleonic myth makers. Getting towards screen writing a bit Proustian also and let the onslaught begin!

The film never approached rapprochement of French style or dramatic tremors but for the occasional side swipe at the class from across a glistening glass or sombre car scene.

Eighties angst and bombs

Set in the eighties it brings in Antony’s fastidious denial of what his work entails obliquely. He has a concealed, for a while at least heroin habit that is centrally along with eighties smoking habits which jar and do not placate even if continuity is attained while domestic scenes sexual and emotional are testing the relationships shifting heaviness. By avoiding the reasons Antony is so distraught and damaged we are failed in seeing his character as anything other than the floundering dandy type and habit fuelled despot Little is revealed about.

Julie is not yet in control of her feelings and allows over-generously the out of control behaviour of Antony. Much is made of the emotional scars as they consume Julie and the family of Julie is supportive and placed in the narrative as benign and forgiving parents. There is a generational gap and delayed realisation of Julie’s predicament. It becomes a joint and shared set of problems which has a substance and form which other parts lack.

An app is now available for you to set up a personality profile – in those days it was something like Dateline or Matchmaker – not just a box of costly crocs to impress along with the exotic date at Pizza Express avoiding Eastern tummy troubles. The app is compared to the alternatives and allowing parents to vet or suggest is not now a go to as they it has to be said might have a select view of you and an overprotective seat at the table.

There are awkward dining scenes with all parties doing what I thought at times was improv and a bit Mike Leigh. Tilda Swinton is acting royalty and gives a tension filled anxiety laden caring delicately portrayed character as Julie’s mother. She is in fact Honor Swinton Byrnes mother – as you probably guessed.

There are some quibbles on my part as to the success of some scenes which may seem one dimensional and not lifted to two even on occasion.

For a middle act there is a journey in the stylised vision of Antony’s view of what should be perfect. This fragility is played out in a Venice sequence and is provided with the copious painterly steps and bridges with a crossover to the third act and the continuing complexities.

The film school observations are navel gazing and black comedy of a kind and the over analysis (I contribute I confess) is necessary. The reason becomes clear as halfway to fifty a change in perspective takes place in the self examination of Julie. A fellow student who has none of the advantages including race of the central privileged upper middle class (stereotyping is eighties and smoking allowed) posits entitlement seen to this day unfortunately as we faze out on a political landscape where either educational lift or loads of money are seen as a door opener it falls without levering open the can of worms it seems to involve. It is after protracted calamity and a slowish pace to the denouement the film becomes overpowering in its emotional cut and thrust.

Head health

An occasional jokey reposts from a working person is glanced. In the immediacy of this relationship Julie takes a stand and while not offering choice – I thought a picnic scene might have been the relocation of Antony to one of those Surrey Mental Hospitals on the Downs or the Peper Harrow reformatory of liberal thinking once home to Will Self. It didn’t have any of that vibe or coarse energy and suffered from its formula of class which may or may not have been intentional.

There are genuinely graceful scenes and sensitively portrayed. There are literal reflections and in a composite element to the narrative – Antony’s past loves were a challenge – named notionally as Desiree – a famous Christine Rossetti poem strike a chord.

When I am dead, my dearest

When I am dead, my dearest,

Sing no sad songs for me;

Plant thou no roses at my head,

Nor shady cypress tree:

Be the green grass above me

With showers and dewdrops wet;

And if thou wilt, remember,

And if thou wilt, forget.

I shall not see the shadows,

I shall not feel the rain;

I shall not hear the nightingale

Sing on, as if in pain:

And dreaming through the twilight

That doth not rise nor set,

Haply I may remember,

And haply may forget.

The poem as the panel oil painting is a miniature of emotions caught as microbes of existence.

The music was brilliant and interspersed with glorious arias and operatic death in Venice oblique reverberance.

Conclusion **** 4

16th Century painter Jean-Honoré Nicolas Fragonard is a notable deportment in this film. The elegance and majestic allegorical canvas are seen in their absence from the film as only postcards and asides. The Souvenir is perhaps that lock keep. In a recent interview with actress Lindsay Duncan on the Theatre and play Hansard said of that medium and it might apply to Cinema or other forms “I don’t think Theatre should be preachy, it should be more skilful than that. Like a Trojan horse carrying important stuff inside.” That is a very astute observation from a maker of art. The emotions of ‘parts’ she goes on to say of Hansard “It offers the chance for us to see ourselves from the outside looking in. At the moment we need every possible way to take stock and remember what is important in life.” Hansard is delivered to QFT in a live screening on 07 November 2019. So eighties, so now.

The Trojan horse here holds its content tightly with the literature eloquent and taut, like the romantic period it seeks to allude to giving thoughts of ‘that love must suffer for loving; the deeper planted, the more it must suffer, in that all true passion of love at its highest force inevitably ends in tragedy: …… But why should sorrow be always creeping in upon joy?’ (Ch.14 Castle Dor)

This film is episodic and is while fluid in its visual dexterity is unable I feel to impose the stark reality of the situation Julie deals with. It is a very watchable contained and clear story which is set to continue as filming of The Souvenir has already started. Whether it achieves the scope of the emotional tapestry seen in the painting will be for you to decide.

John Graham

30 August 2019


Screening at QFT Belfast from 31 August to 5 September 2019 and possibly beyond.

Not a widget!

To make a donation to the blog use

Versus : The Life and Films of Ken Loach : A Film Review

Directed by Louise Osmond. UK. Documentary. Duration 1hr 33mins. Cert. TBC.

Alone amongst equals.

Miraculously Ken Loach is still making films and still on his game as he puts it, with outstanding critical, professional acclaim.  Amongst the people seen in this fulsome and truthful summation of his career as a pioneer firstly and as a filmaker who has surprising sidelines and adjuncts to his milieu, are actors whose the acute observations sometimes make strikingly insightful input, among them Gabriel Byrne whose Royal Court part in Perdition by Jim Allen in collaboration with Loach, was castigated by the mainstream press. It was also derided as propaganda and dangerous as political theatre given its exposure of the Hungarian Zionists who in exchange for extradition to Palestine sent  thousands to their horrible deaths at the hands of the Nazis.  Gabriel Byrne played the legal counsel exposing the truth.  He intimates the size of the bravado, brinkmanship, eloquence, erudite calling Ken Loach’s craft or art summons up in him.  A visceral description is given by Byrne of the head to head Loach had with Royal Court director; seen here and admitting two failings, he has been an otherwise fortuitous director with many sound works behind him, Max Stafford-Clark.                                   

Groundbreaking work.

From his BBC work which produced the celebrated ‘Wednesday Plays’ Up The Junction (1965), Cathy Come Home (1966) England’s World Cup winning year, In Two Minds (1967) and The Big Flame (1969), through to the feature films of the 1990s, Hidden Agenda (1990), Riff-Raff (1991), Raining Stones (1993), Ladybird, Ladybird (1994), Land and Freedom (1995), Carla’s Song (1996) and My Name Is Joe (1998).  The film making the greatest impact emerged with Kes.  A Kestrel for a Knave (1969) as it was known in production (a theatrical affectation). It was only shown in a few cinemas in the north initially and became an instant hit. The plight of the boy along with the flight of the bird epitomised the working class route to the factories set for the children in secondary modern and comprehensive schools. The metaphor a bit loose given the kestrel is captive also.  

Before the attention deficit disorders, the autistic spectrum or dyslexia diagnosis along with the poor dietary programmes and environmental pollution of cities such as Sheffield were this film is set the lack of options career wise was extremely limited and more so than today given the move back to the paying for third level education and limits being programmed into curriculums negating a lot of the humanities and refreshing the sciences along with the new technologies out of reach of many in sub standard schools and local conditions which are beset with social tensions and a workplace of youth exploration, zero hours contracts and rubber band economics in a country printing its way through austerity of its own making.  

Kes shows the central boy, again an exploitative approach to casting – Loach’s tendency to cast unknowns adhere to his reliance on the individual carrying the narrative – ‘Showing you yourself is politics’ – no defences – exploiting the vulnerability actors/players harmonising paradoxically with the Harold Wilson pact of Government – that of Labour delivering ‘men’ to the occupations and factories.  Certainly it became a leading way to enter a story becoming part of the story itself illustrating familiar settings and life situations as the polemic.  In films of Ken Loach’s shown abroad he was received, and still is, with idolatry as a master of drama realism and agent provocateur who matches the dislike of the United Kingdom’s sovereign upper classes, recognised the working class struggles and ultimate sacrifices made in the war and post war settlements, including probably Israel, held high as parallel life struggles.  Those countries more recently loosene from Fascism but intensely preoccupied with new forms of Fascism and ‘cultural/religious’ clashes right and left. Sadly the global picture is left empty in relation to Israel, Brazil, Venezuela, Mexico and the drug traffic finding itself on English, European homes.  It is a bit of a hippy approach on the soft radical left.  No dealings on colour or race are really covered.  The sexulisation, not radicalization of young women for Isis type recruitment or the misunderstood Islamic core fundamental truths in everyday life’s are lost agendas. 

All is Political.

Versus is a multitude of counterpoints.  Chiefly it is the political one. Capital v Labour.  Throughout his career, and we begin with the background of his Nuneaton, Midlands upbringing as mere observer of his families routine dependence on Manufacturing; there is footage within a large factory visited twice in the film, showing the ranks of machining in orderly rows but row after row in a vast factory as we go right to left seemingly unending expressing the servitude, the monotony, the grim conditions normal in those times.  Where now robots perform gymnastic manouvres for workers to accompany them these are similar regimented time based trades and occupations with one object in mind.  To achieve dividends and profit from man and women’s labour.  It’s also Genius v Loathsome and is self categorising.  Ken Loach describes his family visits to Blackpool and the ribald lewdness of the seaside fare in the theatres and them staying in the posh end, the northside. The film in fact begins with the esplanade, tower and carousel images familiar and now more Britains got Talent than revue and vaudeville offerings. The football team of Staney Matthews has even gone soft in the hands of the Royston  dynasty and are on the skids.            

Non-Lapsearian Socialist

It continues. Britain is on the skids in its blindness to the rip off being carried out since the films of the era of the miners strikes.  Even this year the Hillsborough Inquiry is able to link the police forces involvement in mass population manipulation and unmitigated brutality at the behest of the Thatcher government.  Ken Loach calls this period pivotal.  There is no doubt it was.  It began a breakdown in manufacturing and mass unemployment.  It began the greed cycle which is commonplace today. 

Depicting this was to Ken Loach a means of showing the general misguided public the manouvres of the Trade Union bosses, the leadership of a proletariat Labour Party and the upsurge of the worst kind of conspiratorial governance Margaret Thatcher who in thrall to Monarchy and Sovereignty never put a gilded foot wrong in solidifying the monarchal hold on all the worst forms of self interested societal class oppression imaginable.  Save Orwell and Nineteen Eighty Four.

In the beginning Ken Loach introduced to film making in the form of Television plays a new dynamic.  With sideways reflection to the fashions, Beat Generation, liberal sexual attitudes, he began to look for a social discourse relevant and reflecting the working classes whose life’s were removed from the beat generations life except by becoming consumers of it.  The churches, governments, educational establishments were mostly unchanging and Ken Loach found a way out of it through having his Tory upbringing, grammar school toes, an Oxford education.  He entered film making through collaboration with the BBC and Tony Garnett whose skills dovetailed politically and intuitively to allow them to create external drama in a BBC manifestly embedded in period, studio based drama.  Z Cars was then radical. 

Camera as a Person

Into the frame came Up the Junction which became the Television equivalent of Saturday night and Sunday morning.  The realism was achieved by Ken Loach using lesser known or basically first time actors who would work chronologically.  There then followed the groundbreaking realism of the cathartic Cathy Come Home. This is a film showing the worst cruelty suffered by a single mother having her children taken away and homelessness.  Of the situation Loach later said.

Shelter’s done some terrific work. It’s been an excellent resource for research and has obviously helped a lot of families find homes and that’s a very positive thing. What’s inadequate is the idea that homelessness is a problem that should be solved by a charity. It boils down to a structural problem within society. Who owns the land? Who owns the building industry? How does housing relate to unemployment? How do we decide what we produce, where we produce it, under what conditions? And housing fits into that. You can’t abstract housing from the economic pattern. So it is a political issue; the film just didn’t examine it at that level.

Extensively the film missed the real culprits whose profiteering on property, who owned land, who built homes and made a business complete around the financing of it was key and central.  Instead the scandal was of its desperate consequences and was seen in terms of society at loggerheads within the system not because of it.  Loach himself recognised this though it doesn’t get a mention in the film.  Other films made the same mistake though his Marxism became more evident.  No film shown; and the film tells you why, sent out clear signals that BOTH Labour and the Conservatives were intent on dismantling the unions in furtherance of a post war revival which only happened for a chosen few ‘in the end’.  Wilsons mantra was bad enough for England, Wales and Scotland but it was completely evasive of the industrial hotbed of Northern Ireland with its unique and fairly robust industries.  It was soon to see a Wilson collapse like no other as the Labour Party disowned its own kind in Northern Ireland for a pocket full of Backing Britain.

It happens to this day; working chronologically, with the Canne Palme D’or winning I, Daniel Clarke representing a fifty something man enroute to a new job and how that shapes out.  It reacts to the Cameron era of welfare being the place for those not able to fit the labour market constructed for a corporate world.
Ken Loach has in the past tried to interpret history and is given a bye-ball in his naive The Wind that shakes the Barley. Cillian Murphy is at pains to point out it redirected him in acting as he was again confronted as others had been of acting in the chronology of the piece.  Not observed were any wider aspects of separate wars and it is a monotheistic piece without the theism. The same can be said for Brothers and Sisters.  Several things crop up in this film which put Ken Loach in the John Peel (R1) school of liberal radicalism which he admits or chortles about.  The pandering often to a logic which betrays the cause while self serving and exploitative it is conflicting with the authoritive set of accusatory words chosen for Max Stafford-Clark undeserved by any fellow artist and his intermittent – how can you be intermittent? – inflexible set of principles except by being an unreasonable bullish human being.  Call it as it is called at one point – intractionism – but it does not meet reasonable criteria for professional backstabbing.  Cowardice is a word used by Loach in a petty point scoring way at one juncture.

Contempt is his prerogative and a mainstay bolstered by resilience omnipotence and a saintly guarded outlook which conceals an inherent cruelty self admitted occasionally.  The scene in favourite film of his Kes, when the boys are taken to the headmasters office for corporal punishment is a gross abuse. There are similar points of dise toon to be found by the reality being cruel in itself.  Perhaps I, Daniel Clarke shed some more light on the contradictions this director throws up.

Conclusion ###3

This film gives (Is Michael Goves name a typo and was he meant to be called Michael Gives and he just doesn’t get it? – just an aside) a great insight through fellow directors, writers, actors, family and producers of the very important contribution Ken Loach has made to the art of film making with his own politically insights.  He is furiously against all forms of Fascism, is deeply rooted in the psyche of damaged Britain and provides, continue to provide the elemental depth of reasoning neither patronising or compromising.  The underlying strength of this film is the copious account of the making, the process behind many of the more familiar films in his cannon. The works which showed the audacity of thought and the collaborative, driven desire to enable people to have a voice through the medium of Television and Film in a Nation which had Governments of different hue pander to the mass media.  The state controls are  examined throughout his films and the history is recent and of great significance both as a record and a means of expressing the ideas which shape and shaped the United Kingdom – the one seeking its own destiny as the referendum comes.  Some topics, immigration, Muslim Faith, the power of the Church of England and Sovereignty are barely evident but primarily this viewpoint relies on the people enabling do and enabling the creation of the films we are taken through.  It is a very productive process which has resulted in some odd conclusions that are identified in the summary of context as I put them above.  It is a necessary view but one which leaves you with many questions and a lot of cynisism largely through the colossal subjects they manage to confront.
John Graham

1 June 2016


To be screened at QFT BELFAST from 3 June to the 9 June 2016 with a Sunday pay what you can viewing at QFT at 4.40pm. This is in conjunction with screeningsacross the UK and Ireland.