It may not initially seem like The Souvenir, writer-director Joanna Hogg’s 2019 drama, necessarily needs a sequel. The film, which follows aspiring filmmaker Julie Harte (Honor Swinton Byrne) and her rocky relationship with the older, elusive Anthony (Tom Burke), is a sometimes heartbreaking autobiographical story of first love and deception. But Hogg always intended to make the story a two-parter. And she brings things full circle in The Souvenir Part II, in a cathartic retreading of their relationship through the lens of a camera.
The ’80s-set film picks up in the initial aftermath of Anthony’s death. Julie and his loved ones ruminate over how well they actually knew him. Julie, specifically, searches for answers: What did he do in the days before he overdosed? Did he actually work for the foreign office like he said he did? The sequel’s first third follows Julie working to move on, spending time in therapy and back on movie sets.
She goes to therapy, spends time on movie sets, and even has a fling with an actor. But the film really comes alive when it jumps ahead, as Julie sets out on an ambitious senior film project, which is called The Souvenir.
As much as the film rehashes Julie and Anthony’s relationship, Part II is about Julie, growing as an artist and adult. The at-times fraught shoot forces her to relive who she was during her relationship with Anthony: passive, largely non-confrontational, and withdrawn from her film studies and classmates. While Part I is an intimate close-up of their relationship, Part II confirms that the relationship appeared every bit as all-consuming and isolating from an outside perspective.
At times it feels a little intrusive—purposefully so on Hogg’s part—to see Julie retreading this time in her life in front of a cast and crew. She defends the questions she never asked Anthony about his increasingly volatile struggle with addiction when the actors are unable to understand it. She even creates a near-replica for her apartment on the sound stage, down to using much of her actual furniture. There are moments where it starts to feel worryingly on the nose. Julie is so bogged down in attempting to exactly recreate certain moments, specifically around Anthony’s final days, it threatens to derail the whole production. It’s stressful, at times, and Honor Swinton Byrne beautifully captures the complicated, confusing time in Julie’s life.
There are moments in Part II that call back to the first film like Julie asking her mother for money. Only instead of borrowing money on Anthony’s behalf, she needs it to make her film, after failing to secure funding from her advisors. Unlike any time Anthony ever borrowed a few pounds, Julie pays her mom back in full.
Tilda Swinton, reprising her role as Julie’s mother Rosalind, is effortlessly assured and witty. The real-life mother-daughter duo have an easy chemistry on-screen that expands from the first film. And, of course, instead of actually seeing Julie’s work, we’re treated to a stunning ballet interlude. Inspired by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger— The Red Shoes to be precise—it’s a call back to the filmmaker duo Anthony claimed to love.
Part II is also, at times, quite funny. While Anthony looms large over the film in a haunting manner, there are also moments of levity as Julie struggles through the sheer awkwardness of coming into her own. Richard Ayoade, unsurprisingly, steals every scene he’s in as Patrick, Julie and Anthony’s filmmaker friend who is making the great British musical he’s yearned for. I, for one, will spend a very long time wondering exactly what his cut of the musical would’ve looked like. I’m sure it was magical.
Still, the most striking moment of Part II is its bittersweet ending. It’s a rapturous house party celebrating Julie’s 30th birthday. But as the camera zooms back to reveal the soundstage, it’s unclear whether this moment is real. Or if it’s just part of Julie’s cinematic journey. It’s a fitting place to leave Julie. And a beautiful two-hander from Joanna Hogg, who delivers a sweeping, heartfelt coda to a beautiful and ultimately hopeful coming-of-age story.