In 2019, Leeds-born filmmaker Harry Wootliff was enjoying the success of her debut film Only You, which had played various festivals before winning a British Independent Film Award and being nominated for a BAFTA. Starring Laia Costa and Josh O’Connor as a couple who meet by chance and embark on a passionate relationship, the film struck a chord for its sympathetic and authentic portrayal of human connection.
It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that Ruth Wilson and Jude Law approached Wootliff about directing an adoption of Deborah Kay Davies’ novel True Things About Me, which the pair had optioned through their production company Riff Raff UK. The story of a disenfranchised woman working in a benefits office in a nondescript coastal town (Ramsgate in the film), whose liaison with a troubled stranger sparks a spiral of paranoia and depression, needed an assured hand; someone who could touch on the book’s themes of alienation and obsession while also mining the humanity at its core.
When Wootliff read the book, she says that she found these aspects of it immediately compelling. “It was the atmosphere, the character of Kate [given a name for the film and played by Wilson] and this concept of infatuation being like addiction, something that can really destabilise you. You wonder, why would anyone put oneself in that situation. Why would they feed off it, why wouldn’t they just walk away?”
Wootliff’s take chimed with Wilson’s vision, and the pair began working together on True Things, with Wootliff collaborating with Davies and screenwriter Molly Davies on the script. At the outset, it finds Kate already adrift in her life and a boring job, with everyone around her pressuring her to settle down and have kids while she’s desperate for something more. When she meets former prisoner Blonde (Tom Burke), their instant connection and resulting passion promises something of an escape, but her slow realisation that he is no knight in shining armour intensifies her mental distress.
“It was about finding ways of connecting the audience to this very internal journey, about making that addiction visual” notes Wootliff, who deploys some distinctive visual concepts to underscore Kate’s tumultuous emotional state, such as hallucinatory dream and drug sequences and recurring motifs – including Kate’s obsessive attachment to her phone – together with an evocative soundtrack that lurches from classic romantic ballads to angsty PJ Harvey
“When you’re in that situation, it feels like you’re in a waking dream, or waking nightmare,” she says. “And I wanted audiences to experience the film, this relationship, in a way that makes them feel they’ve been sucked into Kate’s mood, her isolation, her loneliness. It’s about her not finding her place in the world and the emptiness of her life, and the light that he brings into it.”
While Kate may be vulnerable and flawed, and making terrible decisions, she is never presented as stupid, or a hapless victim. She refuses to conform to society’s traditional expectations of a woman in her 30s and, crucially, she owns her sexuality and doesn’t shy away from her desire. For Wootliff, it was crucial that Kate be a three-dimensional character whose actions are understandable, even if they are misguided.
“She’s a clever, intelligent woman making bad decisions. But not through stupidity. Women are usually boxed in, there are still these pressures where we should be leading a life where we are not single, where we have children. At the moment I’m researching for a period film and, historically, a woman over 40 who wasn’t married had to become a nun! We’re not like that now, although you still feel like you’re not fitting in and I find that quite astounding. I wanted to dispel those myths.
“I also wanted to show a woman who is in touch with her sexuality,” Wootliff continues. “Ruth talked a lot about that. We were like ‘this woman actively wants to have sex.’ And when she goes into that car park [where she and Blonde have their first liaison], it’s not a sad moment. It’s an adventure, it’s exciting. Kate’s bold; she’s adventurous. She’s not stupid, she knows she’s not in physical danger, but she’s not afraid to take emotional risks.”
Equally as important, says Wootliff, was rounding out the character of Blonde beyond the traditional one-dimensional love rat, into someone more insidiously manipulative. There also had to be a logic to his behaviour, however skewed, both for the benefit of the story, but also to help Burke dig into the character.
“It was really difficult for Tom, because he is really nice and emotionally intelligent!” she laughs. “We talked a lot about the character, and I sent him a biography of Blonde’s life. He is an outsider, but he doesn’t see himself as bad because he’s not self-reflective enough as a person. He’s in fight or flight mode himself, he’s trying to get out of a hole.
“It was also important that he and Kate have a real connection,” she continues. “Unless you set it up that Kate and the audience feel like there’s genuine potential in this man, it will be a boring hour and a half of ‘this guy is bad’. But the whole falling in love process makes Blonde deeply uncomfortable. That’s not justifying his behaviour, but he feels anxious and his urge is that he has to leave. The only way to move forward in a relationship is to trust that person, and that’s something he can’t do. So it was a piece of two halves. And only in the middle does the audience start to get ahead of Kate.”
Kate does, eventually, catch up with Blonde’s true nature and the film’s climax swaps the anonymous decaying industrial sprawl of Ramsgate for the sunny optimism of Spain, where the scales well and truly fall from her eyes. Wootliff describes this deeply cathartic moment, which starts with a disappointing pool party and ends with a defiant solo dance at a local disco, as one of the biggest challenges of the film.
“How do you show desire has gone? How do you show the magic has disappeared? For us, it was about Kate going on a journey. While she’s been unravelling, she’s also in a way been building herself up, discovering things about herself.”
True Things, backed by the BFI Film Fund, is in cinemas from 1 April