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‘The Souvenir’ a stunning study of a smart woman who can’t quit a dangerous man

Honor Swinton Byrne and Tom Burke do beautiful work as the dysfunctional couple, and what a pleasure to see Byrne’s mother, Tilda Swinton, playing someone down to earth.

Though Anthony (Tom Burke) abuses her and lies to her, Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) keeps taking him back in “The Souvenir.”
A24

Julie is an aspiring filmmaker who comes from a privileged background but wants to make a movie about the relationship between a boy and his mother in a dying, working-class town.

She’s sensitive and smart and talented, and perhaps she’s capable of making a film about a subject matter far outside her comfort zone and personal experiences, but in the meantime, she’s oblivious to the fact her own life has become the stuff of movies — the sad and tragic kind.

For all her intelligence and self-awareness, Julie has become entangled in a relationship with the kind of guy who will break her heart, help her piece it back together — and break it again.

And again.

British writer-director Joanna Hogg’s semi-autobiographical “The Souvenir” is a stunning piece of work. It’s a movie about the science and the art of moviemaking; a profile of a complicated mother-daughter dynamic, and a devastatingly effective, docudrama style examination of a romance that turns into a horror show.

Virtually every frame of this film is strikingly effective.

Set in the early 1980s, “The Souvenir” stars Honor Swinton Byrne in an electric performance as Julie, a film student living in a swanky flat in the upscale neighborhood of Knightsbridge in West London, courtesy of a steady influx of checks from her mother, who is played by Tilda Swinton, and yes, Honor Swinton Byrne is Tilda Swinton’s real-life daughter.

So, we have a mother and daughter playing a mother and daughter in a film inspired by the experiences of the writer-director.

Feeling as if her family and her professors don’t understand her, don’t appreciate her and don’t take her seriously, Julie finds herself drawn to the handsome and sophisticated and intense Anthony (Tom Burke), who has an important but undefined post with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Anthony gets her. Anthony treats her like an adult.

Anthony loves her.

Anthony is also a master of manipulation, a pathological liar, a hardcore drug addict and an abusive monster — but time and again, Julie makes excuses for Anthony, defends Anthony, covers for Anthony, believes she can save Anthony.

What a performance by Tom Burke. Of course we despise Anthony, and we want to shout at the screen for Julie to rid herself of this creep — but even as we hate this guy, we see how his slimy charm and his pathetic, can-you-ever-forgive me speeches (which even Anthony himself might believe in the moment) can win him yet another chance with Julie, against her better judgment.

Julie already knows much more about point-of-view than she realizes. She frames her relationship with Anthony through flashbacks and selective memories of tender moments, as a way of insulating herself from the brutal, ugly truth.

Finally, though, there’s no evading reality.

Beautiful work from Honor Swinton Byrne. Her future is unlimited.

As for Mom: Tilda Swinton is such a magnificently unique actress, capable of playing the most outrageous and outsized characters and hitting such high notes.

That’s awesome — but it’s also a treat to see her playing a mom. A mom who has a certain routine when she gets ready for bed, a mom who worries about her daughter, a mom who reminds us of our mom.