True Things (2021/22)
Director: Harry Wootliff
Screenwriters: Molly Davies, Harry Wootliff
Starring: Ruth Wilson, Tom Burke, Hayley Squires, Elizabeth Rider, Frank McCusker
Love, romance, sex. Three things that mean different things to different people, that can be experienced as a combination or separately. Barely discussed yet ever-present, forever-motivating parts of our society. Measurements by which we compare ourselves with others and are led to judge our individual worth by. But what happens when these things are distorted? Distorted by perspective most of all, but by history, by time, by social constructs? And what of the pressures they bring, the pressures they dissipate? In your thirties these questions become increasingly penetrative, and to women they can become almost omnipresent. “When are you going to settle down?” “Who will look after you?” “When are you going to have children?” Harry Wootliff’s feature adaptation of Deborah Kay Davies’ “True Things About Me” is, at least in part, an intimate study of these pressures and their increasing rigidity against a dissolving psyche, and an attempt in some way to understand the value in loving one’s self absent of the expectation that comes with being a single woman marching towards her 40th birthday.
Anchored by two expressive performances from some of British cinema’s most respected and consistent dramatic performers, Ruth Wilson (Dark River) and Tom Burke (The Souvenir), 2022 drama-thriller True Things (originally released at film festivals in 2021) is eroticism, relationship dominance, generational difference, and gendered expectation, explored through a time-distorted, dream-infused narrative that at once brings forth the majesty of Ruth Wilson’s nuanced acting method and yet seems lost in attempting to hint at that which it fails to properly establish.
Ruth Wilson’s Kate begins an affair with an edgy client named Blond, played by Tom Burke. As quickly as he asks her to drop her tights she becomes enamoured by him, taking time off work, lending him her car. She’s quiet, seemingly at a distance from much of what is going on in the world, while he’s self-assured, a partier and pub-goer, but an ex-con not long out of prison. Their existences mirror one another, each learning to walk again after so long in their own versions of exile. To her, he is an almost mythical presence that appears upon her wish, whilst he doesn’t seem sure as to what she is to him.
Co-writer and director Harry Wootliff presents this narrative with a strong lean into the surreal, Blond’s genie-like appearances out of thin air at times presented like figments of his hero’s imagination and at others as if kitchen sink truth. Similarly, dream sequences are deeply bonded with Kate’s journey, but they are presented in a manner that seems disjointed at best, off-putting at worst, and never seem to quite emphasise anything. Wootliff’s work certainly never seems to directly say this or that, or even that it’s trying to say nothing at all. True Things does, as a result, seem absent of a clear vision, of a serious thematic undertaking, and instead seems inexperienced or at the very least experimental, while never quite having the emotional chops or visual awe to ever earn the better parts of your imagination.
It’s a real shame because Wootliff and company do successfully establish all the themes already presented in this review, and they do take the time to tug on each as if they are about to settle on their intent, but then the film is stretched in another direction, ultimately coming to lack any sense of undisputed truth. There is simply nothing here to mine, to investigate, although it certainly tries its utmost to maintain a sense of intrigue, of mystery, of thrill.
At its worst, True Things is cheap and nasty dialogue exchanges, two-dimensional supporting characters lacking in any sense of realistic motivation (a real shame for I, Daniel Blake actress Hayley Squires who plays Kate’s best friend), and narratively weak. It even has issues with some sound mixing, and at times seems at odds with its own sense of whether it’s a TV-ready drama, a cinematic head-fuck, or a whirlwind romance, the squelch of each of these perspectives forming something more eye-rolling than interesting.
At its best, it’s another reliably identifiable, empathy-led performance from arguably the most under-appreciated and exceptionally talented British actress of the moment, Ruth Wilson, and reinforces the pleasure and the aura of Tom Burke’s growing bad boy sex icon status. And special mention must go to composer Alex Baranowski for an exceptional undercurrent of a score that peaks its head in some interesting moments.
Conclusively, True Things perhaps lacks that which is most ironic: truth. Wilson and Burke are both exceptionally gifted and bring a lot of gravitas to their roles, but their performances are the exceptions that prove the rule of this film’s shortcomings and will ultimately leave the vast majority to wonder whether there is a better version of this film that we are never quite privy to. Love, romance and sex are cornerstones of our lives, each of which hit harder in our thirties than at any time before that, and yet here there is little to alleviate the anxieties these things bring, to tackle the truth that underpins them, to deconstruct that which upholds them. Instead, True Things becomes lost to a myriad of contradicting ideas and an absence of thematic purpose, leaving nothing more than a bitter taste.