“The Souvenir Part II,” Joanna Hogg’s continuation of her 2019 semi-autobiagrophical drama, could have easily fit into a clichéd mold. A film about filmmaking at its core, the 2021 sequel might have joined the ranks of “Mank” or “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” flashy films that focus on movie production. But in a refreshingly sincere and intimate spin, Hogg creates a masterfully executed picture that elevates the prose of life into an emotive story about the making of a young director.
The film picks up where “The Souvenir” left off, following Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), an aspiring director, as she continues with film school and navigates the trauma of a manipulative relationship. Disenchanted with her thesis project, she chooses to abandon it and, against the advice of her professors, produces a surrealist picture that revisits her past.
“I wanna show life as it happens in real life,” says Julie in an interview toward the end of the film. Hogg’s picture remains deeply committed to this mantra in depicting the intricacies of this real life-inspired story. Hogg relegates the behind-the-scenes of film production to the back seat, instead focusing on the interpersonal side — the stress and the trauma of past abuse. The result is a slow-paced, but incessantly insightful look into the life of a young director. The unintended consequence is audiences’ head scratching when the film devotes excessive attention to plotlines it fails to resolve or adequately address, though this aligns with the reality that life itself rarely offers closure.
Tilda Swinton, who plays Julie’s mother Rosalind (and is Honor Swinton Byrne’s real life mother), is mesmerizing, but doesn’t steal the spotlight. Her supporting role allows both actresses to bring a genuine sense of warmth to the screen and makes for a relationship with exceptional depth.
Unlike the veteran actress, the rest of the crew are relative newcomers, and this is apparent in the endearing earnestness of their performances. Somewhat counterintuitively, the rough-around-the-edges delivery enhances the film. Granted, there is a stiltedness to the friendly banter Julie engages in with her crewmembers — the arguments resemble faux high school drama, and awkwardness permeates the get-togethers with her parents. However, they manage to encapsulate the expectations of how those exchanges should look, if not exactly how they play out in reality.
Any issues with acting or pacing, however, dim in light of the remarkable cohesion of Hogg’s vision. Her close, lengthy shots from a static camera induce a sense that the audience is let in on a secret of sorts, watching from a few feet away, unbeknownst to the characters. This feeling is reinforced by the production design. Whether it’s a shot of a driving van, a cramped movie set, or a narrow corridor of a British apartment, the tightly confined set designs add an extra layer of intimacy.
The sound design serves the same purpose. Effects that would typically be no more than background noises, from leaves rustling in wind to muffled footsteps in the room next door, take center stage, reinforcing the sensation that the viewer is indeed there, surrounded by the same environment.
Conspicuously missing for the most part are saturated colors and music, and for a good reason. Hogg uses a distinctively warmer palette and uses music only a handful of times. It’s always sparing and deliberate, with a very specific focus in mind: the few scenes devoted to the filmmaking process. Whenever Julie finds herself on her set, working on her production, the screen quite literally jumps to life as saturation increases and music overpowers the otherwise ubiquitous background sounds. This remarkable confluence of the aural and the visual emphasizes the role of films as more than a source of entertainment, but also a transformative avenue for self-expression bound only by the creator’s willingness to gamble and innovate.
“The Souvenir Part II,” with its seemingly unassuming plot and characters, was a gamble that could have easily failed. But in her unwillingness to compromise in the bold pursuit of depicting her experiences with all their intricacies, Joanna Hogg crafted a compelling depiction of a young director’s growth that allows the audience and the protagonist to feel the same appreciation for the art of filmmaking.
—Staff writer Zachary J. Lech can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @zacharylech.