Sunderland and the North East in Film: The Souvenir (2019)

The Souvenir is a 2019 drama film set in the 1980s. The film follows a young woman who enters into a relationship with who she believes to be a successful young man, only to discover he is in fact a heroin addict who proceeds to abuse, manipulate and steal from her, before ultimately committing suicide in the final act. Tilda Swindon also stars in the film.

Although the film is in fact set largely in London, what may catch unsuspecting viewers by surprise is that Sunderland provides an overarching story arc and backdrop for the film, as the main character Julie is producing her own documentary film about the town about the life of a family on Wearside. The opening credits open with a series of 1970s photos of the city which include Roker and her own reflections on the area.

The inclusion of Sunderland in the film is designed to run a commentary on social class. Julie is a privileged, upper class University Student living in high-society Knightsbridge. Her mother (Tilda Swindon) is a landed lady who owns an estate in Norfolk. Seemingly wanting to escape the “bubble” of her own world, Julie’s focus on Sunderland stems from an interest to understand the lives of working class people, in particular a young boy known as “Tony” who is so deeply close to his mother. Her focus on Wearside however, is met with confusion and disapproval from her University faculty.

As described by the Hollywood Reporter: “the movie opens with Hogg’s own black-and-white photographs of economically depressed Sunderland, a northeastern port city feeling the pinch of Thatcher’s brutal economic policies, its blue-collar milieu evoked again shortly after, when Robert Wyatt’s haunting version of “Shipbuilding” is heard on the eclectic soundtrack.”

In framing the story in the light of her Sunderland project, the film subsequently contrasts it with a critical depiction of Julie’s own world to pose the question as to who is truly “lacking” something. Despite the main character’s own idealism and open mindedness, we nonetheless see how is she is nonetheless “trapped” in her own surroundings through how she becomes victim to the film’s antagonist.

As the Wrap quotes: “It gradually becomes easier for us to see why our wide-eyed, motivated film student falls for the pompous, outspoken and admittedly seductive Anthony when no one else is looking. Grandly dressed in preppy suits and military-style overcoats and holding a position at the Foreign Office, Anthony comes loaded with opinions on Powell & Pressburger and art, and majestic romantic gestures that involve buying her expensive lingerie, taking her to museums and whisking her to extravagant trips to Venice.”

Through the realism and dark nature of this film, the metaphor of the Sunderland film and the “young boy who loves his mother” becomes a story of class, virtue and true happiness in England. Does class make you a better person? The criminal and abusive drug addict Anthony is a perfect representation as to why it doesn’t. Likewise, who is truly happier and better off in life? Is it the poor, struggling family in Thatcher-era Sunderland, who is so close to the point it strikes Julie’s own fascination, or herself as a wealthy girl who was stung by the deceptions of upper class life?

It’s almost as if despite the contrast in economic fortunes, that Sunderland has something Julie ultimately lacked in her own life, and found in the wrong person.