From the second that benefits office worker Kate makes charged eye contact with the flirty, scuzzily charismatic claimant across the desk from her, you’re torn between pulling her back, as a sensible best friend would, and urging her to go for it, as we might secretly do ourselves. The man has red flags practically pinned in his bleach-blond, boyband-style hairdo, not just because he’s an ex-con, and not just because intimate client relations are strictly verboten in Kate’s job.
As played, quite rivetingly, by Tom Burke, he seduces women in a way that makes clear his simultaneous capacity to hurt them; as played, quite recklessly, by Ruth Wilson, Kate comes across as a woman who can live with being hurt if it makes her feel alive. Harry Wootliff’s jaggedly grown-up psychological drama “True Things” thrives on the hot, tense chemistry between its two excellent leads: It’s what pulls the audience through an obstacle course of potentially implausible scenarios that instead ring stingingly true.
Who hasn’t, at one point or another, plunged headlong into a plainly misguided relationship because it felt so thrilling in the moment? Is the release while it goes right worth the afterburn once it goes south? If the sex is great, does it matter if you’re not getting a soulmate out of it? These are some of the questions prompted, though crucially not settled, by Wootliff’s intelligent, intuitive adaptation of Deborah Kay Davies’ acclaimed 2010 novel “True Things About Me,” which instead trusts its highly particular heroine to answer them for herself, and doesn’t much care if the audience agrees.
While maintaining the thoughtful emotional acuity of her impressive, Josh O’Connor-led debut feature “Only You,” Wootliff’s follow-up sees the British director expanding her formal register into harder, spikier territory — sealing her status as one of the British industry’s most interesting new talents. For Wilson, meanwhile, “True Things” finally offers the actor-producer a big-screen vehicle to match the emotional range and volatility she displayed in TV’s “The Affair.” U.K. distribution rights have already been snapped up by Picturehouse, but this sexy, accessible arthouse item could sell well internationally following festival dates in Venice, Toronto and the main London competition.
“I think men find you difficult,” Kate’s mother tells her at one point, typifying the kind of sentiment that women like Kate — now in her thirties and perennially unattached — seems to hear often, and consequently internalize, in their lives. “Difficult,” of course, is really code for defiant, unwilling to compromise her desires for those of a man, and not especially interested in domestic stability. Her best friend Alison (a fine Hayley Squires) fails to understand this, keen to set Kate up with the kind of handsome, superficially nice, ultimately unsuitable guys that she herself would settle down with. There are lots of those in the drab seaside town where Kate lives; there aren’t many who get what makes her different.
But when Burke’s confident, deep-gazed stranger strolls into Kate’s office, seeking benefits after a recent spell in prison, he seems to meet her directly at her level. He invites her out to lunch, initially as a joke, though it’s mere hours before they’re having rough, quick sex in a multistory car park. A passing glance at his paperwork suggests his name is Samuel, but she identifies him in her phone only as “Blond,” reversing the kind of gendered objectification usually presented on such relationships on screen and asserting the blunt feminine perspective that colors “True Things” throughout.
But if Kate seems in control to begin with, Blond’s carnal hold on her ultimately gains the callused upper hand. Before long, she’s playing hooky from work to be with him, scarcely disguising her absences from Alison and her exasperated boss, and spiraling into substance abuse: highs that linger as long as Blond is there with her, though his attention grows more erratic as hers grows more intense. Burke, who brilliantly essayed a very different kind of toxic romantic in Joanna Hogg’s “The Souvenir,” pulls off a tricky high-wire act with Blond, making him both an elusive, magnetic object of understandable obsession and a small, strangely sympathetic cad, unequal to the life-saving possibilities that Kate has projected onto him.
Wilson, on the other hand, never makes herself a mystery to us. With a clear point of view often closely twinned by Ashley Connor’s snaking, sparking cinematography, her gutsy performance doesn’t flinch from the erotic ecstasies and humiliations that her outsize crush forces upon her. The film’s sex scenes, while not notably explicit, are genuinely and unusually sensual, the two actors’ physiques exposed and entangled in ways that reflect their characters’ only fleetingly compatible personalities.
Only in a rushed final act does “True Things” waver, serving up a change of scene intended to place this messy, shadowed relationship in the clear light of day — referencing, perhaps, Lynne Ramsay’s rebelliously feminine, richly sensory “Morvern Callar” — only for both lovers’ motivations to turn somehow vaguer and more opaque in the process. Yet there’s still something exhilarating in Wootliff’s refusal to explain her characters to us: To the end, we feel them instead, via the sun and salt and sweat on their skin.
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