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Movies about love at first sight are common enough and so are movies that track the bittersweet season cycle of a relationship’s first year. Then there are movies about a relationship further down the road, brutally tested by the agony of fertility treatment – such as Tamara Jenkins’s excellent Private Life, from 2018 – involving older people who have had ample time to jettison any youthfully naive illusions they may have had about themselves, about each other and about life itself. The marvel of this Glasgow-set debut film from writer-director Harry Wootliff is to make these genres overlap. It’s a poignant and compelling Venn diagram of passion and heartache.
There is enormous tenderness and sensuality in the lead performances: from Spanish actor Laia Costa, the star of Sebastian Schipper’s single-take thriller Victoria (2015) and from Josh O’Connor, previously seen in Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country (2017) and shortly to play Prince Charles in Netflix’s The Crown. They are respectively Elena and Jake: she is working in arts centre administration and he is a postgrad student doing research in marine biology.
Wootliff playfully creates an opening situation of almost Richard Curtis-style romcomness. Elena is hanging out with friends her own age at a New Year’s Eve party. They are all in their mid-thirties and are deep into conversations about relationships, coupledom, singledom. Elena herself is single and she is being seriously hit on by a pretty good-looking man known to her female friends as a nice sort, a solid guy – and a catch.
But Elena isn’t sure and she feels that kissing someone at a party and going home with them involves a greater commitment than it might have done 10 years previously. But should she just get over herself and settle?
Tired, uncertain, unhappy, queasy from that particularly joyless kind of drinking that only happens on New Year’s Eve, Elena leaves the party and tries to flag down a taxi, which ignores her and swerves instead to Jake (O’Connor) further down the pavement. Mortified at Elena’s protests, Jake offers to share the taxi with her and things develop in the time-honoured way.
But Elena makes a fateful judgment call back at her place: Jake is only 26 and she – eager not to freak him out – pretends that she is only a couple of years older. On the face of it, this is not a very serious problem. They are passionately, almost magically in love and the white lie is soon removed from the record. But Wootliff shows us how this initial deceit creates a subtle, insidious imbalance deep in the relationship’s foundation.
Elena’s guilt for her fib leads her to second guess his reaction and magnify her own qualms about landing this younger guy with an older woman for a long-term partner. But Jake doesn’t objectify Elena this way and his romanticism, idealism and instinctive gallantry are all magnified by his concerns on the hardly yet spoken subject of Elena’s ticking biological clock. So they rush, without really thinking about it, into thoughts of what they need to do to have a family.
Costa and O’Connor give us such gentleness and intelligence. Just as in Andrew Haigh’s Weekend (2011) there is a rush of glorious sexiness and sexual pleasure at the very beginning and then something awe-inspiring and moving as Wootliff allows the audience to realise, at the same time as Elena and Jake, that things are serious. When Jake and Elena smiled at each other, I found myself smiling like an idiot as well. And it was the same story when they were suppressing tears.
Perhaps the shrewdest moment is the use of Elvis Costello’s song I Want You from the 1986 album Blood and Chocolate, the music of pain in love. It is what Jake selects to play when he comes back to Elena’s place that first time (as a part-time DJ, he takes it on himself to praise her record collection) and it is the music they fall in love to. This ominous song is the wicked witch that presents their newborn romance with the gift of disenchantment.
Only You is not without flaws. It is a bit overdone when somehow all the parties and social events attended by Jake and Elena are overrun by tiny babies and placidly beaming mums. But their love looks overwhelmingly real. These are people who, moment by moment, are making the secular-romantic equivalent of Pascal’s wager. They are betting on themselves and betting on love.
• Only You is released in the UK on 12 July.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Only You review – gloriously sexy and sad love story | Peter Bradshaw’s film of the week | Film