Pictured: 'Nice record collection.' Jake (Josh O'Connor) gets close to Elena (Laia Costa) in the Glasgow-set relationship drama, 'Only You', co-written and directed by Harry Wootliff. Still courtesy of Curzon / Artificial Eye / The Bureau
Relationships are tested by the perceived obstacles to happiness that couples face. In the Glasgow-set drama, Only You, the sensitively-acted, emotionally-affecting feature debut of co-writer-director Harry Wootliff, we spend two hours in the company of Jake (Josh O’Connor) and Elena (Laia Costa), who meet, fall in love, share a flat, decide that having a baby together is the next step and then hit the biological brick wall. Wootliff focuses on the subtle pressures that Elena and Jake feel under – all of Elena’s friends have young babies – as they begin to feel wanting. It is as if childlessness is a judgement - an un-birth sentence. Elena aged 35 at the start of the film, had an abortion aged 18. This isn’t discussed explicitly, but Wootliff’s film is fodder for the pro-life lobby.
The film owes a monster-sized debt to the early naturalistic dramas of Michael Winterbottom, currently Britain’s most prolific, if hardly most successful director. His most relevant credits include Butterfly Kiss, 9 Songs and Wonderland. (I haven’t even scratched the surface of a CV that boasts a film a year since the early 1990s – over 25 films to date.) Like Winterbottom’s characters, Wootliff’s protagonists aren’t exceptional. Jake is 26, a part-time DJ - well, he had one gig - studying for a PhD in marine biology. He plays the guitar with ‘rough hands’. His mother died aged 38. He spent his early years in a shed modified by his father (Peter Wight). Elena works at the Centre for Contemporary Arts. She is an émigré from Spain. Her father cheated on her mother constantly; her mother tolerated it. Elena is suspicious of men.
The film begins at New Year’s Eve, with the banalities of Auld Lang Syne. (Lest old acquaintances be forgot? Nae, I don’t regret deleting them from my mobile, they were [expletive]). The tall bearded forty year old brother of one of Elena’s friends hovers towards her, scotch moth to a flame. ‘I’m trying to make you my sister-on-law,’ Elena’s friend confesses with giddy inebriation, or as I prefer it, shakeable conviction. The man is handsome. His black sable beard reeks of testosterone, not to be confused with Toblerone – see that in his facial hair, you run a mile. Elena finds his self-confidence almost suffocating, though not in so many words. Sing songs, swaying arms and hugs exchanged, she makes her way into the Glasgow night and struggles to be seen by a taxi driver. When a cab stops, the driver insists it is for Jake (‘I saw him’). She walks away but when we next see her, she is sharing the cab with Jake. They explain their nights – she’s tipsy, he’s sober. She feels a compelling need to be sick but is unable to retch. (Has anyone named an artwork ‘Hesitant Vomit’? It could work for a band.) ‘Stick your fingers down your throat,’ suggests Jake anxiously, as the cab fare mounts. Elena decides that she wants to walk home from here, but the next time we see her, Jake is in her flat, admiring her record collection. ‘It’s my father’s.’ Of course, he would be in awe of vinyl; he’s a DJ. He puts on Elvis Costello’s ‘Blood and Chocolate’, specifically the track, ‘I Want You’, which he unhelpfully explains is not a love song. Don’t you hate people who explain songs before you hear them? (Incidentally, I Want You is also the title of an early Winterbottom film, and would be more suited to this film than Only You. Curses!) Jake sways from side to side in her front room and invites her to dance as the lyrics continue with their thudding aggression – no one punches the stomach like Elvis C. Before long, they are kissing and then getting very familiar, before the repetitive verses are over. But this is no one night stand. Jake meets her after work. He’s keen, and so is she.
Pictured: Those who love me take the bus. Jake (Josh O'Connor) and Elena (Laia Costa) converse in 'Only You', a Glasgow-set romantic drama co-written and directed by Harry Wootliff. Still courtesy of Curzon / Artificial Eye / The Bureau
There is the small matter of their age difference to negotiate. She says she’s 29 but asks in bed, ‘what if I was thirty-two’. Slowly she ascends the age mountain, arriving at its summit. ‘You’ve aged six years in four hours,’ Jake half complains. Nevertheless, he is infatuated and moves in.
The early scenes hint of messy back story. When Jake moves out of his room, playing his guitar at Elena’s request (‘entertain me’), a flatmate pops in and says, ‘you left these in my room’. No one wants to be reminded of the relationships that your lover had previously. It makes Elena nervous. Jake is a strong and determined late. He moves his possessions, wicker chair on his back, bag in one hand, guitar in the other, without the need of a taxi – he’s a human pack horse. He is also without income and, it has to be said, a tiny bit old to be a PhD student. But he’s in Scotland, eh, they still give young people grants.
It is only when Jake meets Elena’s friends and sees her around babies that he decides they should have a child. Then the trouble starts. The pregnancy tests that give bad news, then IVF treatment that proves to be nerve wracking.
Throughout the film, you feel Jake and Elena’s heartache. Why them? It is not as if Jake’s sperm count is low or that Elena’s abortion stopped her having children. There is a gynaecological issue, as the couple discover when they are forced into the private sector, anxiously seeking an optimistic second opinion. But you can’t buy optimism – why can’t someone tell my government that?
For a film about trying to conceive, Only You features a lot of sex. Wootliff doesn’t focus on the bodies, rather Elena and Jake’s faces, close but not kissing. Withholding the point of orgasm, as she does, Wootliff creates suspense. Has Jake released the germinator? A later sex scene is violent in its intensity. It is intended for that higher purpose, but Elena’s face contorts in agony.
Then there’s the irony. Elena’s bearded suitor has made a woman pregnant. What happens to him is also a kick in the teeth.
Spending almost two hours in Elena and Jake’s heartache, watching the tears trickle over Laia Costa’s face, you are overwhelmed with sadness and sympathy. Is adoption really so bad? The screaming row is inevitable but then Jake and Elena have shared so much. He insists that even without a child they are a family. For Elena, literally empty, it doesn’t feel that way.
Few films feature an argument that emanates from Elena not waiting for Jake before she takes a pregnancy test; he is running late. It s a silly row – as if the test would turn out differently. The focus on trying to have a child displaces everything else, puts a filter on every sunrise.
Can you put bad experiences behind you? ‘You can only keep moving forward,’ says Jake’s father Andrew, sagely. Simple lines of dialogue are invested – indeed, overflow – with meaning.
There is a long walk through a park. Lines streak across Laia Costa’s face like bullet trains. You feel the winds of conflicting emotions batter her cheeks. You are reminded that Conception is a Spanish name.
Reviewed at Kiln Cinema, Kilburn, North West London, Monday 29 July 2019, 18:00 screening