How much of life’s rawest drama happens when a woman is hunched over a toilet holding a syringe, a pregnancy test or a tampon? In Harry Wootliff’s deeply moving feature debut Only You, a young couple in Glasgow go on a journey from giddy happiness to unbearable despondency when they decide to start a family. Yet, while they veer from anticipation to grief with each IVF appointment, each passing month, the emotions dredged up in this story are so exhilaratingly authentic that Only You becomes, in its own way, exceptionally romantic.
United Kingdom/Sweden 2018
Certificate 15 118m 24s
Director Harry Wootliff
Elena Laia Costa
Jake Josh O’Connor
Carly Lisa McGrillis
Shane Stuart Martin
Andrew Peter Wight
Rose Isabelle Barth
Siobhan Natalie Arle-Toyne
Eddie Orion Lee
When Elena meets Jake as they both hail the same cab on New Year’s Eve, she spots the age gap between them immediately. He’s 26, completing his PhD and DJ-ing part-time. She’s a little older, she says, and Jake is impressed that she has her own flat, bought and not rented, one that looks like a real home to him, still living student-style in a casual flatshare.
When she alludes to her age, Jake blurts out that women are at their sexual peak in their thirties. It’s not until they have moved in together that she reveals she is in fact 35. Jake replies that she looks gorgeous, still missing the point, not twigging the reason for her coyness: the oft-quoted notion that female fertility falls off a cliff at that exact age. The deftness of Wootliff’s script is such that Elena never has to say it. The moment they impulsively start trying for a baby, she’s as hopeful as he is, but every disappointment appears to hit her harder. When he can’t avoid facing the scale of the problem, he attempts to stifle his tears with a bath towel, his body naked but his sodden face covered.
It’s a beautifully written screenplay, with a subtly symmetrical structure signposted by two spins of the mournful, urgent I Want You by Elvis Costello, but primarily driven by two recognisably familiar, fully realised characters. Jake is played by Josh O’Connor (so strong in God’s Own Country) as a natural brooder, someone who craves stability but instinctively, immaturely, uses music, dancing, sex and alcohol as defences against dark thoughts. He does this as impulsively as he first expresses the urge to have a baby after seeing Elena cradling a friend’s newborn.
Laia Costa, best known for her phenomenal performance in the semi-improvised, continuous-take Victoria (2015), is exceptional as Elena. She’s naturally passionate and quick to draw on her emotions, skipping down stairs full of hope like a little girl one minute, gesturing vividly the next, with tears rolling down her cheeks, trying to convince Jake he’s better off without her.
And they’re a convincing couple, too. It’s all adorably crinkled faces and bitten lips as they first flirt, but soon the chasing each other around the bed gives way to circling each other in another bitter row. Similarly, the sex is steamily ardent to begin with, then awkward, and finally terribly sad.
The angst of struggling to achieve something, a pregnancy, that is easy for others, is well drawn here. For Elena and Jake, a glass of wine or a cigarette at a party is not a signifier of celebration but of another month of reproductive failure. While her friends chit-chat about their own pregnancies, pat their round bellies, Elena is increasingly isolated from them. And as a couple, Elena and Jake find only a reflection of their own misfortune in convivial parties or the sight and sounds of a young family playing in the gardens beneath their window. One pal is too distracted tending to her own infant to really hear Elena when she weeps, explaining the pangs of “missing a child that doesn’t exist”.
When Elena and Jake first meet, they talk about their parents. Though he believes his parents’ marriage was ideal, she knows that hers was not. But they still indulge the romantic fantasy that their parents met and had them just so they could grow up and meet one another one cold night in Glasgow. Only You raises uncomfortable questions about where romantic love meets genetic inheritance, whether it’s naive to believe that a couple can be a family, or whether, as Elena says, they’ll always have “this crazy gap in our future”.
It’s a remarkably mature love story, this, in which romance doesn’t lead to an ideal life but to a partnership of two people who have grown together through suffering. In its unflinching and sustained examination of a very personal issue, Only You stumbles on some universal truths about human relationships.
British Cinema Special: new talent
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+ New directors: Harry Wootliff
Only You is a touchingly naturalistic, anti-romantic drama about a young couple who meet, fall in love, and then struggle to have a baby. By Beth Webb.
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+ New directors: Mark Jenkin
Mark Jenkin’s Bait, exploring the impact of tourists on a Cornish fishing village, offers a hypnotically beautiful evocation of early cinematic masters. By Philip Concannon.
+ Swimming upstream
Though he is clear-eyed about the challenges ahead, BFI Film Fund head Ben Roberts remains upbeat, arguing that personal stories and subversive sentiments are key to driving audiences. By Nick James.