The Souvenir Part II: There is nothing else quite like this in cinema

Joanna Hogg’s quasi-autobiographical film may divide opinions, but that’s no bad thing

The Souvenir Part II
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Director: Joanna Hogg
Cert: 15A
Genre: Drama
Starring: Honor Swinton Byrne, Tilda Swinton, Ariane Labed, Richard Ayoade, Harris Dickinson, Joe Alwyn, James Spencer Ashworth, Charlie Heaton
Runing Time: 1 hr 47 mins

Joanna Hogg settles a few old scores in the second part of her singular autobiographical diptych. We are at a film school in the 1980s. A panel has been assembled – all male, white and middle-aged – to discuss the screenplay for Julie Hart's graduation project. What is this thing? It isn't even formatted correctly. There is no structure to the scenes. There are no scenes. Later, a senior (again, male) crew member rails against her unconventional approach on set.

Played with admirable restraint by Honor Swinton Byrne, daughter of co-star Tilda Swinton, Julie Hart (JH?) does not squabble or crumble. She goes about her work with quiet determination and ends up delivering an apparently accomplished film called The Souvenir.

Thirty years after the events depicted, Joanna Hogg (JH?), graduate of the UK’s National Film School, nestles that Matryoshka doll within another two of the same name. The second part, often taking on the flavour of a ghost story, shot with a stubbornly static camera, works an elusive meditation on grief in with a hard-edged reverie – evocative but never sentimental – on the last days of Thatcher’s Britain. There is nothing quite like it out there.

And yet. Hogg still seems to be in a fight with certain corners of the establishment. Late last year the distinguished magazine Sight & Sound, organ of the British Film Institute, voted The Souvenir Part II the best film of 2021 (from anywhere). A few weeks later the British Film and Television Academy failed to include the picture among 20 long-listed for best British film at the upcoming Baftas. One can’t help but think of the Bafta electorate as the bewildered panel judging that fictional graduation film. What is this? Let’s make space for Cruella instead.

All of which may be just a long-winded way of saying that Hogg's style is not for everyone. Julie is the child of eye-wateringly tweedy parents, played exquisitely by the elder Swinton and James Spencer Ashworth. The natural urge in British independent cinema is to satirise such characters or to make them into Pinteresque grotesques, but Hogg treats them with enormous generosity. Swinton potters about with dogs. She pauses only briefly before lending Julie £10,000 for her film. Nobody gets told off for being who they can't help being.

Yet the film has a sliver of ice at its heart. The first part ended with the death of Julie’s somewhat older, cynical boyfriend from a drug overdose. The new picture is, in part, an attempt to unpack his many mysteries.

Surprisingly, the person who is most helpful is the pompous, pretentious Patrick (Richard Ayoade, hilariously reprising his turn from the opening burst). There has already been much convincing speculation as to the real-life inspiration for Patrick – here shooting an apparently lavish London epic – but, even if he is pulled from clear air, he is a splendid comic creation.

But is Patrick from a different film? What really puzzles the Hogg deniers is the otherwise oblique and sketchy nature of her storytelling. Working from rough outlines, she allows the scenes to find their own lolloping rhythms. And she is not afraid to swerve into apparently jolting contrasts. The Souvenir Part II ends with a lengthy sequence that promises to show us the graduation film, but quickly moves towards a strange fantasia rich with allusions to Jean Cocteau and Michael Powell. Is there something here about youthful pretensions? Is it a sincere attempt to grapple with loss? It is easy to imagine even amenable audiences disconnecting at this point.

The Souvenir Part II – co-produced by Element Pictures in Dublin – is, for those who remain on board, stuffed to bursting with such provocations. Hogg has created her own universe and explored it with relentless vigour. Few final shots have so satisfactorily summed up such a magnum opus. Sod the detractors.

Opens on February 4th