- Carson Cook
The Souvenir: Part II Recontextualizes Its Predecessor
Take the title to heart — The Souvenir: Part II is truly a continuation of a story, one that retroactively enriches its predecessor but also requires familiarity with it. If you haven’t seen the first part of writer-director Joanna Hogg’s semi-autobiographical diptych, I implore you to hold off both on seeing her most recent release and from reading too much about either film (including this review).
A part of me wishes I had preemptively taken my own advice and revisited 2019’s The Souvenir, as Hogg’s follow-up presumes that the events and characters depicted therein are top of mind and thus provides little exposition. But, I must confess, I had little inclination to do so — hailed by many as a masterpiece, I appreciated The Souvenir at the time but failed to fully connect with it in the way I expected I might be meant to. Even knowing that the tale had its roots in the reality of Hogg’s own experiences, I struggled to sympathize with the central narrative: a young film student’s relationship with a man who seems constructed out of red flags. Tom Burke’s Anthony comes across as a man with almost no redeeming qualities as he constantly belittles Honor Swinton Byrne’s Julie, steals from her to feed his addiction, gaslights her at every turn, and ultimately dies of an overdose. Despite the understanding that these sorts of toxic relationships do of course exist, I spent the film searching for any glimmer as to why Julie would stay with Anthony and came up short, which left me puzzled and cold.
The canny trick Hogg pulls with Part II, however, is giving you that reason — though far from explicitly. Whereas the reality of Anthony in Part I was close to unbearable, he exists in the sequel as a mere tragic memory in which his sins are much more easily overlooked, if not forgiven. This plays doubly true for the audience: with two years’ distance and the objective staging of Part I in the rearview, I found it much easier to give myself over to Julie’s subjective perspective; at one point another character notes that Julie’s cinematic retelling of her romance doesn’t make sense, and Julie replies that was just how it happened — somehow, this time around, that logic felt perfectly sound.
Part II begins close to immediately after the ending of The Souvenir, and brings back the same crew — including, notably, cinematographer David Raedeker and editor Helle le Fevre — which adds to the feeling of continuation. But there’s a more dreamlike quality throughout, with the very film stock seemingly shifting at times, and while we’re not asked to necessarily question the events of the first film, we are forced to consider them from the dueling perspectives of historian and storyteller: two types of chroniclers with different styles and motives. Hogg’s script this time out benefits from a stronger narrative throughline (Julie, a film student, is directing her graduate thesis, based on her relationship with Anthony), but maintains the moderately fractured editing and emotional complexity present in the first film — while The Souvenir seemed to hold both us and Julie captive, Part II builds on that and incorporates greater growth and exploration.
The cast is uniformly excellent, particularly an understated Tilda Swinton and a vociferous Richard Ayoade in supporting roles, but on-screen the film belongs to Swinton Byrne. She embodies Julie with a disarming balance of strength and fragility, carrying the weight of trauma and hope in her eyes while using variations in her smile to let us catch a glimpse of her inner workings. It’s not always the case that an actor portraying a version of their director can do so with such vulnerability and presence, and a credit to Hogg and Swinton Byrne that they’ve managed to create such a moving and realistic cinematic memory. Though the story of The Souvenir may be over, I expect both women’s stars to continue to ascend.