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'The Souvenir' review: Honor Swinton Byrne stars alongside mom Tilda in quiet character study

A remarkable performance by Honor Swinton Byrne makes this understated film a must-see. 

Tilda Swinton, left, and Honor Swinton Byrne in

Tilda Swinton, left, and Honor Swinton Byrne in "The Souvenir" Photo Credit: A24

'The Souvenir'

Directed by Joanna Hogg

Starring Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton

Rated R

Playing at Angelika Film Center, Landmark at 57 West

There are few topics more ripe for emotional fireworks than doomed first love. But “The Souvenir,” Joanna Hogg's memoir set in the mid-1980s at a British film school, is a masterful study in what's not said. To call something “muted” may hardly seem like a compliment, but at a time when most movies are screaming their message (if they have any message at all), this quiet, observant character study is a much-needed respite.

Honor Swinton Byrne is Julie, 24 years old, from wealthy stock, and figuring out how she wants to express herself as an artist. She's been researching northern shipbuilding towns and has good intentions of setting a movie there, but may not yet have the facilities to tell that story. Though it's not shown how they meet, she begins dating an older, seemingly mature man, Anthony (Tom Burke), who is not quite what he seems. 

Anthony works at the Foreign Office, has memberships at proper clubs and offers advice that's just on the border between constructive and condescending. Julie starts seeing her friends less and her parents aren't exactly over the moon about him, but they'd never say anything. He's also quick to ask to borrow a few quid, but we'll let that slide for a while.

Julie's whole world is opening up for her, so she's not quite tuned in to differentiate enormous red flags from mundane moments. As such, the film is sly in unfolding its next turn. Even when you figure out what's happening (no spoilers here) Hogg doesn't show the presumably explosive off-screen moments. These are dignified characters, so new developments are simply accepted, and now we move on. It makes for an altogether unusual film, but also has the essence of real life. How many times have you looked at couples and wondered “how do they make that work?”

Swinton Byrne gives a remarkable performance, and it's especially fun to watch her in scenes with the woman playing her mother, her actual mother, Tilda Swinton. The muted nature of the film extends to the set design and shooting style. Julie's apartment is unfussy, perhaps in need of cracking a window. The period décor and grainy stock exudes the mid-'80s, as well as deep cut music choices. Extra points for going with the Robert Wyatt version of Elvis Costello's “Shipbuilding.”

This movie will not be a box office hit and truly isn't for everyone. But for people looking to examine interpersonal relationships from a fresh perspective, “The Souvenir” is one to keep.

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