Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir ended with a surprising note; it promised a Part II for a film no one expected a sequel to. The first film was critically acclaimed for the most part, but some critics and audiences, myself included, found it also deeply problematic in its portrayal of class and wealth. The film was brilliantly acted and Honor Swinton-Byrne, daughter of Tilda Swinton who also appears in the film, was a standout but the film asked for too much sympathy for someone with a rather comfortable life.
The film, which followed Swinton-Byrne’s Julie, ended in tragedy as Julie’s mysterious, slightly shady boyfriend Anthony (Tom Burke) was found dead, leaving Julie, a film student, devastated. Part II continues Julie’s journey as a filmmaker trying to make sense of herself and her actions and mistakes through her graduation film. If you hated the first film, there is a strong chance you will love this one as it puts the first film in a whole different perspective, interrogating and questioning Julie’s character.
The class element is still there and it continues to be the most problematic and uncomfortable part of The Souvenir Part II. It’s not addressed and Julie is still seen asking for money from her wealthy parents and living rather comfortably in her own flat, something no working class film student could ever afford. But Hogg’s tighter focus on Julie’s journey to find answers within herself is so much more intriguing and fascinating that it takes over and becomes the sole focus of the film.
This is also a film that is deeply enamored with filmmaking itself. Julie is a budding filmmaker, a student trying to find her artistic identity and her truth, but struggling with how much of herself she is pouring into her work and how vulnerable it leaves her. Her actors, portraying versions of Julie and Anthony, comment on how confusing their actions and emotions in the script, and by extension, in real life seem, further causing Julie heartbreak. Her emotional turmoil isn’t just for the death of a person she loved, whom she didn’t really know in the end, but her own actions, her own naivety and stupidity in the face of a toxic relationship. It’s something any woman who looks back at a blatantly toxic romance. How did I let myself behave this way? Why did I stay? Why didn’t I say something? Could I have changed the outcome of this if I spoke up?
Swinton Byrne is once again miraculous and luminous on screen. Fragile, funny and self-reflective, it’s an assured and complex performance from an actress with no other credits to her name, apart from a short cameo in I Am Love, which starred her mother Tilda. Richard Ayode turns in a memorable performance, full of wit, even if he is reduced to mostly a cameo.
The Souvenir Part II is still perhaps a tad too long and a little on the pretentious side. While Julie’s student film is the film’s focus, there are things in the sidelines that aren’t explored enough. Julie is seen throwing up; is this a sign of an eating disorder? An unwanted pregnancy? Julie mentions her period is late but is then later seen engaging in period sex with a casual encounter, played by Stranger Things’ Charlie Heaton. He goes down on her and emerges with a blood-stained face, we then see the period-blood stained sheets and the image is somehow shockingly mundane and honestly, quite brilliant.
The Souvenir Part II isn’t perfect, but it comes close. There are still questions about Hogg’s treatment of class but the film succeeds as a sequel in a way films rarely do; it puts the first film into a different perspective and bravely questions the main character’s actions. Swinton Byrne is simply wonderful and makes Julie relatable and much warmer than she was in the first film. This is almost brilliant filmmaking and one of the best British films of the year.
The Souvenir Part II is in cinemas February 4.