TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. One of the most critically acclaimed movies of 2019 was "The Souvenir," a drama from the British writer-director Joanna Hogg, based on her early years as a film student in 1980s London. It was the first film in a planned two-part project that Hogg has now completed with the new film "The Souvenir: Part II," which is now playing in theaters. Our film critic Justin Chang says "Part II" is every bit as terrific as its predecessor. Here's his review.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: It's commonly assumed that film critics hate most sequels, though the truth is we try to keep an open mind. A few months back, I felt it was only fair to point out that the ninth "Fast & Furious" movie wasn't nearly as terrible as the eighth "Fast & Furious" movie. And while I'm mixed on the latest adaptation of "Dune," I'm as excited as anyone for "Dune: Part II." What we don't see often enough is gifted filmmakers working outside the mainstream and telling intimate stories that span multiple movies, filmmakers like the brilliant Joanna Hogg, who conceived her semi-autobiographical drama "The Souvenir" as a two-part work.
I was a big fan of the first "Souvenir," which introduced us to Hogg's younger alter ego, Julie Harte, a London film student played by the splendid newcomer Honor Swinton Byrne. Set in the mid-1980s, it told the piercing story of Julie's tumultuous romance with Anthony, an older man who seduced her with his rakish charm and ultimately died from a heroin addiction that he tried to hide from her.
As the wonderful "The Souvenir: Part II" opens, the wound of Anthony's death is still raw. We see Julie grieving at home with her parents, who don't always know the right words to say but are a deep source of love and comfort anyway, especially her mother, played once again with wondrous grace by Swinton Byrne's famous real-life mom, Tilda Swinton. Much of "The Souvenir: Part II" focuses on Julie's decision to make a kind of cinematic memorial to Anthony as her thesis film.
It's an emotionally wrenching process as Julie struggles to figure out her vision and articulate it to her impatient cast and crew. But as Hogg makes clear, directing a film is hard enough even when you aren't mining your own personal tragedy for material. She hurls us into the everyday headaches of low-budget filmmaking - the script changes, the continuity errors, the on-set tantrums. I could have watched another full hour of these scenes, which make for terrific behind-the-scenes comedy.
While "The Souvenir: Part II" is a sadder movie than its predecessor, it's also in some ways a lighter one. The most amusing character is Julie's arrogant and ambitious classmate Patrick, who's played by the great performer and filmmaker Richard Ayoade. In one scene, after she's finished her film, Julie runs into Patrick on the street.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE SOUVENIR: PART II")
HONOR SWINTON BYRNE: (As Julie) How's your film?
RICHARD AYOADE: (As Patrick) I'm not calling it that any longer. I was invited to leave the editor, so - I could have made their film, but I wanted to make my film. So it was an easy decision.
SWINTON BYRNE: (As Julie) Sorry about that.
AYOADE: (As Patrick) I always wanted to be like Orson Welles. Liddy (ph) and I are back together.
SWINTON BYRNE: (As Julie) Good. Good. I'm pleased.
AYOADE: (As Patrick) I ground her down. She lost that battle, although she's doing the editor.
SWINTON BYRNE: (As Julie) OK.
AYOADE: (As Patrick) So maybe she's winning the war. How's your memorial?
SWINTON BYRNE: (As Julie) Finished now. Editor's done, so - waiting to graduate. So we'll see.
AYOADE: (As Patrick) Did you avoid the temptation to be obvious?
SWINTON BYRNE: (As Julie) I think so.
AYOADE: (As Patrick) That's all you can hope for; isn't it?
CHANG: Hogg, for her part, resists the obvious at every turn. You can guess that Julie's story ends on an optimistic note, since in real life, Hogg went on to direct music videos, TV series and several acclaimed feature films that brought her to this point in her career. But at any given moment, you're never entirely sure where "The Souvenir: Part II" is headed. That feels fitting. This is a movie about the difficulties of dealing with loss and making art and how there's no clear or easy way to go about either one.
Swinton Byrne quietly lays bare the many layers of Julie's grief and trauma - her loneliness, her longing for intimacy and, finally, her determination to honor her lost love the only way she knows how. I won't say too much about how Julie's film turns out except to note that Hogg has come up with a pretty wild movie-within-a-movie conceit that pushes this drama to a new level of meta invention. Hogg also finds a way to honour one of her early mentors, the great British experimental filmmaker Derek Jarman, who incidentally also frequently worked with Tilda Swinton.
Maybe this all sounds a little self-involved, but "The Souvenir: Part II" never feels narrow or solipsistic. It's a wonderfully generous movie, sardonic in tone but rich in understated emotion. Hogg regards her younger self both critically and affectionately, and she shows an instinctive fairness toward all her characters. She's also extremely attentive to how they look, talk and present themselves. Rather than overdoing the big '80s hair and obvious needle drops, aside from one exhilarating use of The Eurythmics, she channels the vibe of the era with exquisite subtlety.
The first "Souvenir" didn't draw huge crowds, and the audience for a sequel may prove even smaller. But if you missed the first one, there's no better time to stream it in preparation for this marvellous follow-up. Together, they add up to something intensely personal and close to perfect, which is not to say I'd mind if Hogg ever decided to revisit these characters in the future.
GROSS: Justin Chang is the film critic for The LA Times. He reviewed "The Souvenir: Part II." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be writer Gary Shteyngart. His new novel was described as his finest in the New York Times. It's called "Our Country Friends," and it's about eight people riding out the COVID-19 pandemic in the country home of a Russian-born American writer. There are trysts, betrayals and a social media campaign trashing a famous member of the group. I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF STEPHEN SONDHEIM'S "NIGHT WALTZ")
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF STEPHEN SONDHEIM'S "NIGHT WALTZ") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.