Film reviews: The Souvenir | A Million Little Pieces | The Informer

Honor Swinton Byrne plays a young director in search of inspiration in Joanna Hogg’s semi-autobiographical The Souvenir, with a cameo by her mother Tilda as her on-screen mum. By Aistair Harkness

The Souvenir

The Souvenir (15) *****

A Million Little Pieces (15) **

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The Informer (15) ***

Class privilege and creativity are explored with self-lacerating precision in The Souvenir, Joanna Hogg’s portrait of an unsure-of-herself filmmaker trying to find her voice in early 1980s London. Revolving around the well-heeled Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) as she becomes involved with a caddish Foreign Office junior (Tom Burke’s Anthony), the film is shot through with queasy, uneasy tension as Anthony’s ability to play on her insecurities starts upsetting her comfortable Knightsbridge existence. The question Hogg’s fourth feature – after Unrelated, Archipelago and Exhibition – rather brilliantly refuses to resolve is whether her protagonist knowingly lets herself get sucked into Anthony’s increasingly chaotic world out of genuine love or some kind of masochistic desire to explode her bubble-like existence (something even the IRA bombing of Harrods right on her doorstep doesn’t quite seem to manage). We already know, for instance, that Julie is struggling to explain her vision for a Sunderland-set film about working class woe (a vision that gets foggier the more she’s forced to interrogate her reasons for making it). Is she perhaps trying to find in Anthony some authentically dramatic life experience of her own that will help fuel an artistic awakening more unique to her? Fictionalising aspects of her own conflicted experiences as a National Film and Television School student in the 1980s, Hogg imbues the film with sly insider knowledge (there’s a definite sense of a few scores being settled) and she’s aided by an enigmatic, inscrutable performance from newcomer Byrne, whose own mum, Tilda Swinton, starred in Hogg’s graduation film and who pops up here, in a sublime piece of meta-casting, as Julie’s wealthy mother. The end result is a sincere, audaciously complex, artistically rich attempt to grapple with the difficulty of figuring out how to articulate something meaningful in a medium built on artifice.

One might think an adaptation of a fraudulent literary memoir would be a great way for an artist-turned-filmmaker such as Sam Taylor-Johnson to explore the illusory quest for authenticity that frequently accompanies the creative process. Frustratingly, though, her adaptation of A Million Little Pieces, James Frey’s infamous, partially fabricated account of his own crack addiction, eschews all mention of the literary scandal that followed its publication. Instead, it conforms to the predictable beats of every other inspirational redemption narrative and, in the process, provides yet another young actor ample opportunity to demonstrate his dramatic range by running through the highs and lows of a serious drug habit. That actor is Johnson’s husband, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, with whom she co-wrote the script and who throws himself into the drug abuse melée with plenty of conviction: vomiting and shivering his way through the withdrawal scenes, acting like an ingrate to his nearest and dearest and whipping his penis out whenever the character hits rock bottom (a way, perhaps, of showing how this disease literally and figuratively strips people of everything). Kicking off with a hedonistic slow-motion drug binge shot in the style of a high-end 1990s music video, the film uses this and its alt-rock 90s soundtrack to time-stamp the movie’s period setting, topping things off by subsequently kitting out Johnson’s Frey (pronounced “Fry… like French fry”) in the sort of mohair cardigan once favoured by Kurt Cobain and last seen on Timothée Chalamet in this year’s similarly themed Beautiful Boy. Druggy 90s aesthetics duly established, the film follows Frey as his brother (Charlie Hunnam) has him committed to a rehab facility where he bonds with Billy Bob Thornton’s wisdom-espousing fellow addict, rejects the advances of Giovanni Ribisi’s ageing street hustler and fights his counsellor’s (Juliette Lewis) efforts to get him to admit he even has a problem. He also falls for a young woman (Odessa Young) being treated in the female wing of the segregated unit, which sets up a doomed love story that you just know will turn the character around. Though stylishly made, the way the film takes everything at face value makes A Million Little Pieces seem as phoney as Frey’s account turned out to be. In the end, that might seem unintentionally appropriate, but it doesn’t alleviate the tediousness of the exercise.

The Informer is the sort of solid genre film that would have benefitted from having a proper movie star in the lead. Instead it stars Joel Kinneman, a decent actor to be sure, but as evidenced by his largely forgotten turn in the redundant Robocop remake, he doesn’t have that ineffable spark to carry a big screen movie on his own. Cast here as a drug-dealing family man turned FBI informant, he’d actually be fine were this a Netflix show with space to fill in his character as the sting that’s supposed to get the Feds off his back for good goes wrong. But in the compressed time frame of a movie in which his character must return to prison and play the FBI, the local police and the Polish mob off against each other in order to escape his past misdeeds (and secure the safety of his wife and child) he never really registers. That said, Italian director Andrea Di Stefano keeps the plot rattling along and it’s further propped up by decent supporting turns from Rosamund Pike as Kinneman’s FBI handler and Clive Owen (who would have knocked this out of the park as the lead a decade ago) as her boss. ■