**** (out of ****)
With The Souvenir Part II, writer/director Joanna Hogg both continues and, for all intents and purposes, resolves the story that began in 2019’s The Souvenir, that great drama about a star-crossed romance between a young, aspiring filmmaker and an older, troubled, and troubling man. The film understood the relationship that blossomed between them, even if we in the audience and even the young woman at its center didn’t quite get it, mostly because such connections genuinely happen in real life, whether we ask for them or not. Within the stoic features of Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), we understood how we could not understand what she saw in Anthony (Tom Burke, whose performance in that earlier film was exceptional in the way it fully absorbed the possessive and destructive qualities of the man), and that was a brilliant trick on Hogg’s part.
Those who saw the first part of this story will remember how this relationship ended – with Anthony having sold off some of Julie’s possessions to buy drugs, just before dying of an overdose in a public restroom. It was the kind of gut punch that left a lot of questions and unfinished business in its wake, so it only comes as a bit of a surprise that we have this follow-up, which begins within the aftermath of that tragedy. Julie searches for answers that are unlikely ever to come. Anthony’s parents (played by James Dodds and Barbara Peirson) have opened an investigation into the Foreign Office, where Anthony claims to have worked when he was alive, and his therapist (played by Gail Ferguson) suggests that it was the tragically simple case of a shell of a man deciding he no longer wanted to try living.
None of these explanations suffice, of course, but it is unlikely any explanation ever would. The space between unthinkable grief and acceptance is where this part of the story rests, however, especially after Julie’s first brush with intimacy following her boyfriend’s death. We can sense a few similar qualities within Jim (Charlie Heaton), a famous actor cast as the lead in Julie’s friend Patrick’s (Richard Ayoade) big-screen, studio-backed musical, with whom she has a messy and dissociated one-night stand. Once again, she is falling into the arms of a man who is, by all accounts, emotionally unavailable to her. We all do strange things in the wake of grief. Was it his casual mention of having met Anthony once or twice that did it? We don’t know, and Hogg doesn’t try to explain it.
Some time passes. Julie re-enters film school and concentrates on making the student film that will allow her to graduate (Understandably, the strain of her recent tragedy has had an impact on her work). Hogg allows the realization of what the film-within-the-film is about slowly descend upon us. We see the production designers constructing an artifice that eventually reveals itself to be the bedroom in which so many conversations and so much intimacy happened. We see the casting process, in which another popular actor (played by Harris Dickinson) and Julie’s lead producer (played by Ariane Labed) wind up playing Anthony and Julie. This is Julie’s story, told by Julie within the film and, once again, by Hogg within a larger context.
Such a move into the meta-referential arena is a brilliant one for the filmmaker, who ends up saying as much about Julie as about the exorcistic nature of storytelling. For Julie, the movie she makes is a way of dealing directly with her grief and the relationship that came to mean, so inexplicably, so much to her. She handles the production with grace, but there is undeniably a certain trepidation on her part to handle some of the tougher scenes without a little too much input (The actor playing Anthony points out, either helpfully or unhelpfully, that he is technically working from Julie’s version of events and is inherently unable to get at the truth of the character). Swinton Byrne’s performance gradually opens up for the audience over the course of these scenes, which cleverly reframe scenes from the earlier movie and offer a new access point for understanding them.
For Hogg, the move means that we can have a deeper understanding of the world around Julie and without Anthony, whose absence haunts this half of the story. Her parents (still played by James Spencer Ashworth and Tilda Swinton, the actress’s real mother) tiptoe around the topic, but Hogg’s screenplay knows that the two were befuddled by Anthony’s domineering personality and controlling tendencies but are now speechless to understand Julie’s grief. Eventually, though, life goes on. Julie premieres her film, gets on a road to real professional success, and finds happiness where she thought it was absent before.
In many ways, then, The Souvenir Part II is about how the stages of grief never truly make sense. If she could deny his death, perhaps the anger would never come. If she could bargain her way into doing work as an escape, perhaps she might never feel the depression. Finally, though, there is acceptance, and the greatness of Hogg’s achievement here is in showing us that acceptance is not an act of ridding oneself of those previous feelings or the experience that charged them. It is, ultimately, an understanding that everything can be ok (The final shot, which is a dizzying pullback and a fourth-wall rupture simultaneously, reveals this to be a personal story, too). This is not only a great continuation of the first film. It is also an essential one.
Review by Joel Copling