Harry Wootliff is the film-maker who in 2018 gave us the wonderfully tender and well-observed grownup love story Only You with Josh O’Connor and Laia Costa. Now she is back with another complex relationship, a humidly intense tale of amour fou, submission and emotional self-harm, adapted from Deborah Kay Davies’s novel True Things About Me. This is a well-acted movie with accomplished set-piece scenes of eroticism and residual, unfulfilled yearning. But sometimes it feels like the ambient atmosphere and performances are going nowhere. The characterisation isn’t as complex or as searching as it was in Only You, and in its third act the plot signs off with a lame and implausible resolution.
The scene is a benefits office in a seaside town, where Kate (Ruth Wilson) has the boring task of interviewing all the variously upset and abusive claimants. Her mate Alison (Hayley Squires) has stuck her neck out to get her this job, and is already slightly worried and exasperated by Kate’s persistent lateness and not-very-well-concealed sarky attitude.
Kate’s life changes when a moody, insolent and very sexy young guy with dyed blond hair swaggers in for an appointment, insouciantly revealing that he has just done four months’ jail time for something or other; he is played with obvious relish by Tom Burke. He quietly asks if he can take Kate out for lunch; Wilson conveys Kate’s frisson of excitement as she agrees and sneaks out to meet him against office rules. Instead of lunch, they have rough sex just by his Mercedes in the multi-storey car park (how does he afford a Mercedes?), and later he persuades her to bunk off work to come with him for a swim and more delicious al-fresco lovemaking. Soon she is, in the words of the song, mad about the boy.
But with a terrible inevitability, this man starts treating her casually, not calling her for ages and then demanding she drop everything at a moment’s notice; she tells him everything about her but knows nothing about him. Kate becomes clingingly and pathetically obsessed, stalking his address on Google Street View. Then he airily announces that this Mercedes of his is mysteriously out of action and demands to borrow her car for a “business venture” and disappears for ages without giving it back. Could this man simply be using her? Could this be part of a repeated pattern of predatory abuse? Maybe Kate doesn’t care, because this toxic and destructive relationship is more passionate and real than anything else in her life.
The crunch comes when the gorgeously cruel lover has one of his swings towards affection and invites Kate to Spain where his sister is supposedly getting married – although he is not travelling with her, having merely promised to meet her at the airport when she arrives. And it is at this point that the audience is entitled to wonder when we are going to meet this sister, or at least when Kate is going to demand to be introduced to members of his family, and if and when the mystery of his background is going to be illuminated.
Well, the Spanish section of the film does not convince, either in what is supposed to be happening or in how it allegedly brings about a change in Kate. Yet Wilson and Burke give formidably good performances: a woman who desperately wants to give and receive love, and a man who hasn’t the smallest idea what any of that means.