CAN love survive when the dreams that sustained it start to fade? Can any amount of passion overcome the dispassionate laws of biology? Imagined futures and present realities clash harshly in romantic drama Only You, the feature debut from female British director Harry Wootliff.
Laia Costa (Victoria) and Josh O’Connor (God’s Own Country) are Elena and Jake, the star-crossed lovers who hail the same taxi one fateful New Year’s Eve in Glasgow. They soon find themselves back at Elena’s flat listening to her dad’s Elvis Costello records and falling, quickly and deeply, in love. So quickly, in fact, that Jake has already moved in before Elena reluctantly reveals her true age. She is 35, Jake a boyish 26. Undeterred, Jake takes one look at Elena holding a friend’s baby and starts dreaming of starting a family — but when the couple have difficulties conceiving, their relationship comes under strain. Elena has to suffer the indignity of seeing her female friends happily pregnant while the ticking biological clock and gloomy medical opinions leave her increasingly desperate. Jake, meanwhile, has to grapple with the fact that he and Elena may not share the picture-postcard future he initially envisaged.
Laia Costa as Elena
Only You aspires to tell a real, raw, modern love story — in Wootliff’s words, to be ‘romantic without being sentimental’. She has taken a deliberately unvarnished approach to this emotive and rarely addressed subject matter, unafraid to follow Elena into bathroom cubicles or to intimately depict the bad sex as well as the good. She is similarly relaxed about showing the flaws in her romantic leads. Despite his pretty-boy looks and soft-spoken charm, Jake can be surprisingly unlikeable at times: immature, inconsiderate and alarmingly naive about the often prosaic realties of making a relationship last. Wootliff’s visual approach is similarly direct, her camera framing the protagonists tightly to give us a fly-on-the-wall perspective on the unfolding drama.
This uncompromisingly realist approach comes with risks. With the emphasis resolutely on dialogue and performance, any inconsistencies are brought into sharp relief, and Only You occasionally falls victim to this. Some of Elena and Jake’s exchanges, especially the more heated ones, are surprisingly on the nose, to the point of cliché (“You want me to be this perfect woman … let’s just break up … get out of my flat!”). And in earlier scenes, Costa and O’Connor fall just short of the finely tuned chemistry required to convey the fun and silliness of new love.
Josh O’Connor plays Jake in Only Love
An intriguing moment comes late in the film, when a panicked Elena stresses to Jake the true cost of childlessness. ‘We will have a 20-year gap in our lives. How will we fill it?’ There is much food for thought here, even potential for a sequel (Only Two?). These moments of insight are, however, rarer than might be hoped. Both lovers are given a backstory of sorts, neither of which are particularly satisfying. Elena alludes to a difficult relationship with her parents, worrying that her own struggles to have a baby are a result of an unfeminine coldness she has inherited from her mother. This macabre suggestion deserves more attention, but it comes and goes in a flash. Jake’s wide-eyed understanding of love is explained by his rose-tinted memories of the relationship between his father and deceased mother. The scene in which his father sets the record straight — surprise surprise, he and Jake’s mother weren’t a perfect couple after all — aims for revelation but ends up on the wrong side of mawkish.
Jake and Elena in the movie Only You
In a subtle stylistic touch, the soundtrack includes pieces of both Spanish and Scottish origin, reflecting Elena and Jake’s respective backgrounds. It’s left to the viewer to decide whether these styles jar or can be made to harmonise. Further imaginative storytelling devices in this vein might have elevated Only You to another, more interesting, plane, but the film seems to have more modest ambitions. Indeed, perhaps the harshest thing that can be said about Only You is that it is not particularly cinematic. With its narrow focus, straightforward linear narrative and unfussy visuals, it would be perfectly at home on the small screen. That’s no crime, and makes sense given Wootliff’s background in TV writing. But in a world saturated with visual content, new directors have the unenviable task of remaking the case for cinema, and it remains to be seen whether Wootliff is up to the challenge.
by Jackson Caines
Only You can be seen at the Barbican and Curzon cinemas, London