The Souvenir: Part II is Joanna Hogg’s follow-up to The Souvenir (2019) but it’s not your regular sequel. It’s not Sing 2, for instance. It’s not the exploitation of a franchise. And it’s not as if the industry has run out of original ideas for autobiographical films about becoming a film-maker in London in the 1980s. The two were always conceived as a pair telling the one story — and they would have been made back-to-back had Hogg not run out of money. So it’s the one story with a wait in-between which, admittedly, has been a trial. Did Julie make her graduation film about working-class kids in Sunderland? Which sounded like the worst idea ever. Also: has she moved on from Anthony?
The film picks up where we left off, with Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne; terrific) still processing Anthony’s sudden death from a drug overdose. He had been her boyfriend, her first, and it was a toxic, abusive relationship yet she had been infatuated. She is recuperating at her well-off parents’ country place and I could watch a whole film just about her parents: her emotionally repressed, always sensibly dressed mother, Rosalind (Tilda Swinton, Honor’s real-life mother), and similarly repressed yet sweet father, James (James Dodds). They love their only child hugely but can only nibble at the edges of showing that. It is painfully touching. You can’t tear your eyes from them. If there were to be The Souvenir Part III: Rosalind and James Walk Their Springer Spaniels, I would be up for that.
As Julie deals with her loss, she wonders if she ever really knew Anthony. Why didn’t she clock that he was a heroin addict until so late in the day? Did he really work for the Foreign Office? She visits his parents. She tries to quiz his friend, her wonderfully pretentious fellow film student Patrick (played yet again by a scene-stealing Richard Ayoade). Meanwhile, she works on her graduation film. She drops the documentary about those working-class kids in Sunderland, which was a terrible idea, given how privileged she is. (Hogg is self-aware about this. It is very clear that if you don’t have money behind you, or can’t live in mummy and daddy’s Kensington flat, you can forget a career in the arts.) Instead, Julie opts to make something more autobiographical and the final film-within-the-film is, in essence, The Souvenir: Part I. (Oh God, that trip to Venice.) This is Hogg/Julie discovering herself as an artist. I know, super-meta. And it sounds ghastly but somehow it isn’t.
You don’t turn to Joanna Hogg for plot. Her first major film, Unrelated (2007; highly recommended), is essentially a holiday in Italy, a bit of sexual tension, then everyone comes home, and that’s it. Yet you are riveted. It’s as if Hogg casts some kind of spell. It may be the force of her naturalism. There is never a script. Hogg presents her actors with a prose synopsis and they go from there. The structure is episodic and she often uses a static camera with characters wandering in and out of shot. It’s always as if you are happening upon something happening right now. This time round there is no central, intense, Byronic performance from Tom Burke (Anthony), which seems a pity, but what can you do? If the character’s dead he’s dead. Julie, meanwhile, is still quietly unknowable, but perhaps that’s intentional? Given she is still finding her voice?
This has already appeared in many top ten film lists — deservedly, in my opinion —although audiences may not love it as much as critics because for critics a film about film-making is catnip. (The more meta the better.) As an alternative, perhaps, you could watch Don’t Look Up (Netflix, starring Meryl Streep, Leonardo DiCaprio, and basically everybody), which was slated by critics but loved by audiences. Albeit wrongly.