‘The Souvenir Part II’ review: pain and pleasure in a different kind of sequel

Forget blockbuster explosions, Joanna Hogg's unexpected follow-up proves you don't need a big budget to start a franchise

Nobody was exactly clamouring for a sequel to Joanna Hogg’s elegant love story The Souvenir, but with Part II the master of middle-class filmmaking turns her eye to the power of making art to work your way through grief. It’s a more complex direction after spending the first film in the heart of a difficult relationship between film student Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) and a mysterious and dangerous older man Anthony (Tom Burke), which ended in tragedy.

Where do you go after such a shocking end? Deeper into yourself, to unravel those painful feelings and turn it into something almost hopeful. We find Julie moments after the fallout of her love affair with Anthony, quietly grieving in her parents’ home (Tilda Swinton, Honor’s real-life mother, plays her onscreen parent too) and figuring out what to do next. Stories of love and loss are familiar, but this one stays focused on the ways filmmaking can offer catharsis, in a moving memoir about a young woman finding herself and the healing powers of cinema.

Swinton Byrne is convincing once more as Julie – somewhat more assertive than in the first film as she fights to make the graduation film she believes in despite her (all-male) professors trying to shut her down. She has much more to do as a performer, as a carousel of potential love interests come in and out of her life, whereas Burke’s Anthony sucked up all the air in the first film. Stranger Things star Charlie Heaton is charismatic as a one-time fling, while Harris Dickinson does his best to honour’s Burke legacy as he plays a fictionalised version of this fictional character in Julie’s film (still following?)

And then there’s Joe Alwyn as a kind film editor who helps Julie, as she tries to flirt with him but must retreat when he mentions cooking dinner for his boyfriend. It’s tempting to say these impressive actors are underused, but that’s probably the point – this is Julie’s story.

Hogg honours her journey with a suitably rich soundtrack for the era – Nico, Erasure and The Jesus and Mary Chain all feature – and impressionistic, almost poetic framing. It does keep the viewer at arm’s length sometimes, as Julie struggles to understand the sadness she’s carrying it can feel like simply waiting for the next chapter to begin. Her classmates bicker about the struggles of student filmmaking (painfully familiar for anyone who’s ever had to work on any kind of group project), and Richard Ayoade returns as a pretentious, flamboyant filmmaker showing Julie exactly what a confident (if excessively so) artist can look like.

It’s a restrained, respectful portrait completing the first part of this story – and reframing the two Souvenir films as a study of one woman learning from the trauma of such an intense relationship, as opposed to glorifying the intoxicating romance of it all. The film takes a minute to let the viewer in, to get on Julie’s level, but it’s often rewarding once her heart really does open up.

Details

  • Director: Joanna Hogg
  • Starring: Tilda Swinton, Honor Swinton Byrne, James Spencer Ashworth
  • Release date: February 4
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