Dir: Harry Wootliff. Starring: Ruth Wilson, Tom Burke, Hayley Squires, Tom Weston-Jones. Cert 15, 102 minutes
I spent all of TrueThings waiting for Ruth Wilson’s Kate to get “the ick” – that moment of total disillusionment, when the rose-coloured glasses of desire finally snap and you see your partner for the repulsively average human they are. The man she’s lusting over, after all, is really just a cluster of red flags stuffed into an overcoat. The first warning should have been that this allusive Blonde (as Kate has him saved in her phonebook from her; we never learn his real name from him) is played by Tom Burke. The actor has a knack for playing life-ruining men – a quality he so effortlessly provided in 2019’s The Souvenir. Blonde slinks into Kate’s place of work, a benefits assessment center in Ramsgate. He’s just out of prison, with peroxide bleached hair and a cocksure grin. “What are we doing for lunch?” I have purrs.
Blonde is bad news and we, as an audience, are left screaming on the sidelines, begging Kate to see how shamelessly she’s being played. He convinces her to skip out on work for a midday tryst. He negs her by calling her shoes ugly – an insult disguised as flirtation, so that she’s left desperate for validation. He tells her that they’re soulmates and then immediately disappears for a week. Burke has a wonderful, delicate way of lending dominant men a kind of old-world romanticism – when Blonde and Kate first meet outside of her work, he tells her to take off her tights and underwear, and they have sex right there in the corner of a parking garage. Not many actors could deliver that scene without coming across as outright aggressive. Burke softens his words to just the perfect degree.
That said, I’m not sure the actor’s performance alone is enough to sell the concept of TrueThings, Harry Wootliff’s second film, adapted from Deborah Kay Davies’s 2010 novel. The truth of toxic romances is that the ensnared person can never see what’s so obvious to everyone else. If we were to fully connect with Kate, Wootliff would have had to conceal a few of those red flags, or at least blur them enough so that we’d be led to question our own objectivity. Here, the audience takes up the role of Kate’s concerned parents of her, or her of her comfortably married friend of her Alison (Hayley Squires), whose primary function is to remind Kate that she’s been looking to settle down and have kids.
We instead understand Kate mostly through the dimensions of her desire – and cinematographer Ashley Connor, who turned the excellent Madeline’s Madeline into a woozy hallucination, brings an unfussy intimacy to TrueThings. Kate imagines herself on a beach, receiving oral sex from some anonymous surfer, in what’s suggested to be a collage of a hundred different aspirational Instagram posts. Wilson only needs to let the curl of her lips tighten slightly to suggest profound emotion – pain, pleasure, or despair – and Wootliff is perceptive enough to ensure every micro-shift in expression is captured on screen.
TrueThings isn’t quite as effective as the director’s 2018 debut, only you, which tracked the fluctuating desires of a couple (played by Laia Costa and Josh O’Connor) undergoing IVF treatment. But it does reiterate Wootliff’s fluency de ella in the unvarnished, messy spaces of female desire, operating in a way that does n’t sacrifice the actual sexiness of her work de ella. There’s an idea implanted that Kate’s obsession with Blonde is, in fact, only the symptom of something wider – an internal fight between what’s expected of her as a woman in her thirties, and what she actually wants from the men she dates. Alison sets her up with a sensitive man, who’s handsome and in steady work. Kate is repulsed by it. That seems to be the key to understanding how she works, if only TrueThings could have found a way to really climb into her head. Only then would we have seen the full rainbow of the raw and real.