Films about drug addiction are rarely easy to watch, but Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir is excruciating in fresh ways. Its depiction of a relationship between a young, idealistic film student and a habitual heroin user contains all the anguish we have come to expect from these tales, but its narrative approach creates a deeper and livelier sense of unease. It zigs where most addiction films zag, going down recognizable paths but stopping in unfamiliar areas. If you can get past your own creeping dread, there is a view worth admiring.
In 1980s London, Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) is a young artist supported by her posh upbringing. She wants to make a film about Sunderland, a working-class area, but no one takes her aspirations seriously. We’re not even sure if she takes herself seriously. When she meets Anthony (Tom Burke), a smarmy faux intellectual who works for the foreign service office, she finds an apparent match for her adolescent dysfunction. He takes her seriously enough to belittle her directly, and Julie finds his matter-of-fact validation of her insecurities comforting. Of course, they begin an affair.
It’s a bit later that we learn about Anthony’s drug use. One of the film’s masterstrokes is how it foregrounds the psychological abuse that often accompanies addiction-tainted relationships. As soon as they unite, Anthony begins bending their dynamic to his favor. This way, when she learns of his addiction, her self-esteem will be low enough to tolerate it. He does this by systematically disputing her opinions, no matter how trivial the subject, and often brazenly demeaning her. “You’re lost,” he tells her coldly at one point. “And you’ll always be lost.”
Of course, he’s the lost one. Burke cuts a slyly menacing figure as Anthony. Handsome, burly, and with a piercing gaze, you can see why Julie is attracted to him: He has an intensity that is impossible to ignore. It’s a sensational performance, but Swinton Byrne, a first-time actor, accomplishes just as much in a more complex role. Her character is an innocent seeking balance between vulnerability and self-protection. She’s learning how to love others and herself, and stumbling into many pits of despair along the way. It’s a meaty role, and Swinton Byrne is well cast: Her nervous, naturalistic energy clashes beautifully with Burke’s technique-driven approach. It’s an intoxicating mix.
Still, it is Hogg’s strong, purposeful voice that frames their relationship so perfectly. Early on, she films the lovers’ interactions from behind them. We can barely see their eyes, removing any trace of sentimentality. She doesn’t want us to fall in love with these characters. That’s a brave choice in a romantic film. It also allows us to see Anthony’s cruel banter more honestly, as systemic abuse rather than witty repartee. Later, when their relationship advances towards anguish, Hogg turns her camera toward them so that we can identify more deeply. As a result, the pain feels more real than the pleasure.
It’s an artful and authentic portrayal of addiction’s seismic impact on a relationship, but where Hogg finds her second masterstroke is how she spins this dynamic outward to create a broader portrayal of how men treat naive women. At film school, Julie is subjected to the same patronizing treatment. She is constantly required to justify herself to her older, male instructors. They know what they’re doing, zeroing in on her class-driven shame as a pressure point, brandishing their establishment power as a weapon. Hogg conveys this abuse subtly but unmistakably, and it’s easy to imagine she drew from her own years of experience as a female filmmaker in a man’s world. It is a rich and resonant subplot in an already devastating story, the kind that turns a good film into a great one.
The Souvenir opens Friday at Landmark’s E Street Cinema and Bethesda Row Cinema.