By Eleanor Ringel Cater
“The Souvenir” is a portrait of the artist as a young doormat.
Set in London in the ‘80s (i.e., no computers, cellphones, but the occasional IRA attack at Harrods), the movie features Tilda Swinton, looking as close to ordinary as you’ve ever seen her, and her real-life daughter, Honor Swinton Byrne, here cast as her movie daughter, Julie.
Julie is trying to make her mark in film school. To that end, though she’s from a well-off family, she wants to explore real life, as they say. Her professors are somewhat dismissive. When the question of financing comes up, one of them sniffs, “I suppose you don’t really have to think about budget in Knightsbridge.”
However, these guys are princes compared to Anthony (Tom Burke), the slightly older prick in pinstripes who’s recently entered her life. Though he claims to work for the Foreign Office, he somehow never has any money and even asks if he can stay with her while he’s in town.
Shy and easily intimidated, Julie says sure. While initially there’s a “wall of Jericho” between them in bed (tellingly, constructed out of her stuffed animals), the two become lovers. She’s smitten. He’s critical and supercilious, telling her things like “You’re lost, and you’ll always be lost” or ‘It’s like you’ve been backed into a corner by life, so, ‘oh, I’d better be filmmaker’.”
Then he borrows more money and tries to look busy while she pays the dinner bill.
Their one-sided relationship is painful to watch – intentionally so. Yet you have to wonder if director Joanna Hogg meant it to be quite so one-sided. Byrne doesn’t just play a drab and listless character; she’s a drab and listless presence. So Burke gobbles up the picture as easily as Anthony gobbles up poor Julie. It’s a fascinating performance.
Further, casting her mother as, well, her mother, becomes a minus. Swinton is one of the most uniquely luminous actors working these days. She’s stolen movies from the likes of George Clooney and Benedict Cumberbatch.
It’s never easy being the progeny of a movie star. Ask Colin Hanks (as in Tom) or Mamie Gummer (as in Meryl Streep). True, both have had some success and both are talented. But at this point, Byrne isn’t in their league, and despite its good intentions, “The Souvenir” does her no favors.