Warning: includes some spoilers
Ghosts are everywhere, if only we look: they are not supernatural beings, but the spectral figures of the bereaved; those whose own identity is so crushed by the loss of a loved one that they become little more than grief-stricken vessels for the memory of the dead.
This is how we encounter Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) at the beginning of The Souvenir Part II (selected cinemas, 4 February), in which she is mourning the loss of her lover Anthony (Tom Burke) – found at the end of the first movie (off-camera) dying from a heroin overdose in the loos of the Wallace Collection. She is bed-ridden, translucent, fussed over by her desperate parents (Tilda Swinton, the actor’s real-life mother, and James Spencer Ashworth).
The question is whether Julie’s aspirations to be a flim-maker – a subplot in the first movie – can survive her bereavement and become the engine of some sort of recovered agency. Both parts of The Souvenir draw heavily on the youthful experiences of director Joanna Hogg, who made her diaries, photos and cassettes of the time available to the cast, and designed Julie’s flat as a precise replica of her own Knightsbridge home in the Eighties.
To watch The Souvenir Part II and witness Julie’s emergence as a creative talent – faltering but determined – is also to consider afresh the first movie (released in 2019). Seductive, erudite and enigmatic, Burke dominated the screen as Anthony and enraptured Julie – ultimately, to toxic effect.
When he staged a burglary and robbed her, she ended up apologising to him, indulging his apparent fantasy that he was a hush-hush official at the Foreign Office rather than a thieving junkie. He also insidiously undermined her ambitions as a director (“We can all be sincere. We can all be authentic. But what’s it all for?”).
In the second movie, Anthony’s absence is palpable from the start, and drives Julie to play gumshoe in search of the truth about his plunge into the abyss. But it is also – in the most painful sense imaginable – liberating.
She is now free to be precisely the kind of director she wants to be, arguing with her crew, struggling with her cast, but also honing her vision and relaxing into different, more relaxed friendships. When she watches the Berlin Wall come down on television, she weeps – partly, perhaps, because she remembers Anthony’s beguiling opinions on world affairs, but also because she is witnessing her own emancipation in geopolitical form.
Richard Ayoade returns (brilliant once again) as the bombastic film-maker Patrick, who, in a West End alley, gives Julie the best advice she could possibly hear about how to manage her memories of Anthony. Her parents, too, offer hope in unexpected ways.
When Julie accidentally breaks the little “Etruscan” pot that her mother has made in a ceramics class, time stands still as she braces herself for fury and reproach. But – as her father says – “worse things happen at sea.” The deployment of the cliché at once punctures the atmosphere of dread and adds to the stock of perspective that his daughter is slowly accruing. Some things cannot be mended. But life goes on.
Having ditched her original plans to make a graduation film set in Sunderland, Julie – like Hogg – mines her own experience to dramatise her relationship with Anthony. At this point, the film ventures into the realm of magic realism, with Swinton Byrne and Burke (rather than Julie’s actors) playing the two lovers. The sequence is dream-like, enchanting and owes much to Powell and Pressburger (whom Anthony said he admired in the first movie: “They’re very truthful. Without necessarily being real”).
The Souvenir: Part II is, like its predecessor, a true cineaste’s film, studded with references to Hogg’s favourite directors: notably, to Truffaut, Ozu and Fellini, whose 8½ (Otto e mezzo) she has cited as a particular influence, and to specific classics such as Singin’ in the Rain. Fundamental to any understanding of Hogg’s work is her devotion to the late Belgian director, Chantal Akerman, best known for Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) – a dedication celebrated in the excellent Chantal Akerman Retrospective Handbook she and Adam Roberts co-authored in 2019.
Because her films are often set in the milieu of the bohemian upper middle-class, Hogg is sometimes accused – quite unfairly – of being no more than the cinematic chronicler of privileged aesthetes. The comedian Stewart Lee once described her 2010 movie Archipelago – one of three in which she has collaborated with Tom Hiddleston – as “an art film about middle class people on a disappointing holiday”.
Which is true enough, as far as it goes. But Archipelago was really about the corrosive repressions of English convention; the rage, shame and despair that batter against the frame of the oil painting. Hogg has shot few more powerful moments than the scene in Unrelated (2007), set on a Tuscan villa holiday, where the young Hiddleston’s father screams at him inside the house, out of control and vicious in his language, while the other guests lounge by the pool as if nothing is happening. The Souvenir movies are only about class to the extent that they confront its dysfunctions, delusions and persistence without fear or sentiment.
Their shared title is drawn from a 1778 painting in the Wallace Collection of the same name, by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, in which a girl – also called Julie – carves her lover’s initial into a tree. Julie tells Anthony that she looks sad. “I think she looks determined,” he replies. “And very much in love”. About this, at least, he proves absolutely right.
What next? At the Q&A with Hogg and Swinton Byrne that I attended, the director said that she is already considering a third instalment – though her lead performer, still only 24, will need to be a bit older before they can embark upon The Souvenir: Part III. For now, enjoy the second movie, which only strengthens Hogg’s status as one of the very best directors of the age.
Here are this week’s recommendations.
This is Going to Hurt (BBC One, 8 February; then all episodes iPlayer)
Adam Kay’s seven-part adaptation of his best-selling diaries (2017) – which recounted his medical training between 2004 and 2010 – is very far from the traditional medical procedural drama series. Set in the obstetrics and gynaecology department of a London hospital, This is Going to Hurt is unsparing in its portrayal of the human cost, burning exhaustion and ethical dilemmas facing an NHS doctor – day after day after day. Ben Whishaw is tremendous as Kay, frequently breaking the fourth wall to deliver wry asides to the viewer about his many predicaments, anxieties and gripes. Directed by Lucy Forbes – best known for The End of the F***ing World (All 4) – the series packs a powerful comic punch, in addition to its considerable dramatic impact. It is also more than a one-man show: Alex Jennings is great as the consultant, Mr Lockhart (“Oh, and Adam – stop being shit”), as is Ambika Mod as junior doctor Shruti. The impressive consequence – a metaphor, in its way, for the paradox of the medical profession – is that This Is Going to Hurt is both draining and exhilarating to watch.
Reacher (Prime Video, 4 February)
One of the great mis-castings of recent Hollywood history was Tom Cruise’s portrayal of Jack Reacher in the 2012 movie of the same name, and its terrible sequel Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (2016). Most obviously, the diminutive Cruise looked nothing like the 6’5”, 250 lb giant of Lee Child’s spectacularly successful series of thrillers. More subtly, the actor brought too much established star power to a role that is defined, at least in part, by the anonymity of the transient: Reacher, a former military police officer, is a drifter by choice, an archetypal hero roaming the small towns and badlands of America, carrying only some cash, a toothbrush, and a passport. In this respect, Alan Ritchson is a much better fit – both physically, and because, to put it politely, he is a rather less familiar screen presence than Cruise (it is conceivable you’ll recognise him from the superhero TV series Titans or The Hunger Games: Catching Fire). This season is adapted reasonably faithfully from the first published Reacher novel, Killing Floor (1997) – in which he is dropped off by bus in Margrave, Georgia, and immediately embroiled in a murder mystery (“Payback, justice, vengeance… looking for the whole gang”). Malcolm Goodwin as Chief Detective Oscar Finlay and Willa Fitzgerald as Officer Roscoe Conklin provide strong support and a foil for Reacher’s quickfire wit – leavening the all-action scenes that help to make the show a worthy adaptation of its legendary source material.
Pam & Tommy (Disney+)
Based on a Rolling Stone article by Amanda Chicago Lewis, this very watchable eight-part drama tells the familiar story of the stolen Pamela Anderson-Tommy Lee sex tape with a depth and sense of irony that may surprise viewers expecting a caper as superficial as the lead characters. The star of Baywatch and drummer of Mötley Crüe, famously wed on the beach in Cancun in 1995 after only a few days together, experienced a new form of global fame when a Hi8 tape, including hardcore footage of their sex life, was taken from their Malibu mansion. All the principals are excellent: Seth Rogen as the disgruntled carpenter, determined to take revenge on Lee; Sebastian Stan as the gun-toting, thong-wearing drummer; and Lily James, unrecognisable in prosthetics and makeup as Anderson.
Tawdry from beginning to end, the story was also a milestone in the development of the internet as a delivery system for content – adult or otherwise – and of the ultra-invasive culture of modern celebrity. In the age of TMZ and the self-surveillance of Instagram, the notion of privacy that still lingered in the Nineties now seems almost quaint. This, indeed, was its last stand; and the story of Pam and Tommy is a message in a bottle from a world on the cusp of transformative change.
Love Marriage – Monica Ali (Virago)
“In the Ghorami household sex was never mentioned.” So begins Monica Ali’s fifth novel, and her first since Untold Story 11 years ago. Since the triumph of her first book, the Booker-shortlisted Brick Lane in 2003, she has – much to her credit – resisted the promptings of critics to stick to one genre or setting, and has instead spread her wings, exploring her range as a writer. Love Marriage, a tale of interlocking families in London, is an exceptional novel: funny, wise and full of human foible. Behind every arras of familial calm lurk secrets. Infidelity, sexual or otherwise, crops up when you least expect it. The struggles of a geriatric ward form a powerful counterpoint to the apparently frictionless domestic lives of the main characters. The entanglement of comedy and heartache is beautifully pitched, and the portrayal of personality worthy of a Dickens for the digital age. One of my very favourite writers delivers the goods yet again.
Out of the Sun: On Race and Storytelling – Esi Edugyan (Serpent’s Tail)
Best known for her terrific novels Half Blood Blues and Washington Black – both of them shortlisted for the Booker Prize – Canadian author Esi Edugyan has now delivered a remarkable collection of essays on representation, race, identity and history. Not surprisingly, Out of the Sun is rich in stories, memory and the warmth of human experience: the tales of individuals such as Angelo Soliman (born Mmadi Make in 1721), enslaved in Borno State, taken to Vienna, where he became a chief servant and royal tutor to a prince, but was denied a proper Christian burial upon his death.
Especially gripping is the story of Edward Makuka Nkoloso (1919-89), the director of Zambia’s National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy, who assembled a team of 11 “Afronauts” that he promised would reach the moon by 1965. Predictably scorned for this particular ambition, Nkoloso was deadly serious in his vision of a “new scientific Zambia” and, as Edugyan puts it, a determination “to ignore or cast off the Western gaze” – which she elegantly links to Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther (2018) and the screen majesty of Wakanda: “What would an African nation spared slavery and colonialism look like? Coogler’s answer is much the same as Nkoloso’s: powerful almost beyond imagining”.
The book also includes one of the best analyses that I have read of Rachel Dolezal’s “trans-racial” claim to “identify as Black” – after she was revealed in 2015 to be a white Montana-born woman while serving as president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP. There are insights, ironies and nuances on every page: Edugyan must now be counted as one of the finest essayists of her generation, as well as one of the best novelists.
Behind Closed Doors: Why We Break Up Families – and How to Mend Them – Polly Curtis (Virago)
Why are so many children wrenched away from their families by the state? This was the question Polly Curtis set out to tackle with her pioneering research at Tortoise – an investigation which she has now expanded dramatically into one of the most important books on British society for many years. As one would expect from a journalist of distinction, Behind Closed Doors is rigorous, evidence-led and clear-eyed. But it is also immensely readable, thanks to the many interviews that Curtis has carried out, her determination to find best practice wherever she can (New York City, for instance) and her ability to weave humanity and public policy into a fine narrative. Making sense of strategies such as “relational activism” and “radical tenderness”, Curtis’s book is much more than a study of children, families and social services: it is an MRI scan of society as a whole and its interconnected dysfunctions. In its scope, originality and potential impact, I can only compare it to Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy (1957): it deserves the widest possible readership.
Tonight we’ll be joined by Polly for a digital ThinkIn on the role of the social worker – and how it could be done differently. Do join us to share your thoughts, perspectives and stories.
After Arthur Labinjo-Hughes, Peter Connelly and Victoria Climbié: what should social workers do?
Few Good Things – Saba (4 February)
The third studio album from the Chicago-born rapper – aka Tahj Malik Chandler – marks his continued creative evolution since the acclaimed CARE FOR ME (2018), deftly teased in this short film directed by C.T. Robert. As the mastermind behind the Pivot Gang collective, Saba has revealed himself to be an astute businessman as well as a formidable artist (see his 2021 essay on the subject). Few Good Things addresses head-on the transition from poverty to wealth and the complex psychological reflections this journey inspires (in ‘Survivor’s Guilt’, for instance: “My father told me that the world was mine and I believed him/ My momma said I was a heathen/ My grandma was the one to feed us/ I’m the one that paid my sister tuition, I should probably go to the meetings”). ‘Fearmonger’, produced by Daoud and Daedae, is a catchy track that disguises its anxieties about money (“So ain’t no option, option, option, you best go make more”) with a seriously infectious beat – and the same theme curls through “Come My Way”: “Daydreaming thinkin’ how to get some money/ And then we good, and then we good”. One of the most intriguing and compelling forces in contemporary hip-hop.
Ravel: Orchestral Works – John Wilson, Sinfonia of London
For Ravel enthusiasts, this collection is a must, including, as it does, the first recordings of the complete original versions of Ma mère l’Oye (Mother Goose) and Boléro. For the general listener, it is no less glorious: a tribute to the exceptional work of John Wilson with the Sinfonia of London which he revived in 2018 – and to its collective fascination with Ravel, which was already clear in Escales: French Orchestral Works (2020). The interpretations of Valses nobles et sentimentales, Alborada del gracioso and the Pavane pour une infante défunte are all magnificent, perfectly paced and rigorous but with a strong spirit of musical celebration. There are many compilations of this composer’s orchestral works, but very few of this calibre.
Jon Savage’s 1977-1979 – Symbols Clashing Everywhere – Various artists
Jon Savage is probably best-known as the author of England’s Dreaming (1991), still the finest account of the punk revolution of the late Seventies. Here, in the latest of Ace Records’ excellent series of curated CD compilations, he offers 46 of the best tracks from that era: not only punk, but dub, Euro Disco, post-punk and unclassifiable gems. As Savage writes in the excellent sleeve notes (remember them?): “In 1977, the charts became an issue again – or at least the English ones did”. Which is true – although what makes this collection special are not only familiar and classic tracks (Tubeway Army’s ‘Are Friends Electric?’, “Neat Neat Neat’ by the Damned, The Undertones’ ‘True Confessions’) but forgotten treasures such as ‘Soda Pressing’ by the Boys, ‘Young Savage’ by Ultravox! (still using the exclamation mark), and the Middle Class’s ‘Situations’. The compilation draws its title from Siouxsie and the Banshees’ ‘Hong Kong Garden’ (“Harmful elements in the air/ Symbols clashing everywhere”) – aptly so, as Savage shows that the period was a great collision of styles and genres, from Iggy Pop’s palaeo-punk to the psychedelia of the Lines and the disco rock of Sheila & B. Devotion. A superb sonic gateway to one of the great periods in UK music and culture.
… and finally
Thanks to Tortoise’s Emily Benn for her recommendation of Romeo and Juliet, The Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House (until 25 February)
“The Royal Ballet’s latest season of Romeo and Juliet is well underway at the Royal Opera House. There is a reason it is such a favourite of fans and dancers – Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s defining choreography and Prokofiev’s score are paired beautifully. The Royal Ballet are magnificent heirs of this production, first created by the company in 1965 (originally for Juliet Lynn Seymour, though Margot Fonteyn was controversially given the opening night). This series sees both new and more experienced principals take on the role of Juliet – Lauren Cuthbertson, Sarah Lamb and Mayara Magri among them – along with the reprise of Anna Rose O’Sullivan and Marcelino Sambé’s partnership. Frequently cast together – including in Swan Lake later this year – they first took on the roles in April 2019. Audiences around the world will be able to enjoy the remarkable chemistry between the leads, in a special Valentine’s Day cinema screening. The leads steal the show, but this really is a production staged in such a way as to show off the fine acting and dancing talents of the entire company, who dance with joy, commitment and panache.”
…and thanks to Tortoise member, Paul Atherton, for his recommendation of Ash, Ember, Flame: A Japanese Kiln in Oxford, Embassy of Japan, Piccadilly, London, until 18 February.
“HIdden at the top of the steps in the entrance of the Japanese Embassy on Piccadilly this exhibition is more than just a display of the ceramics of the 24th and 25th firing of Oxford University’s smallest Anagama Kiln. It’s also an exploration of how we can maintain traditional crafts and practices and make them ecologically sound.
Created by academics, famous potters, sculptors, community groups, educators, school children & upcoming ceramicists, the display offers an insight into the history of the Japanese Anagama Kiln and its process. The wood fuel shares the same space as the stacked pots in the “Cave Kiln ” – the resultant effects of flame, ash and ember, producing different looks and sheens on the work.
This Torch (The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities) project is a perfect example of egalitarian art, that not only produced something beautiful and lasting, but also, through the two 24-hour-a-day, three-day firings, educated those involved in cultural, artistic and historical practices and demonstrated how these can be maintained environmentally for the future. An exhibition well worth an hour of your time.”
Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations for Creative Sensemaker to firstname.lastname@example.org.
That’s all for now. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.
Editor and Partner
Photographs courtesy A24 Films, BBC, Amazon, Disney+, Getty Images, Royal Ballet