True Things: an uneasy psychological character study

Ruth Wilson is aggressively vulnerable as a reckless thirty-something determined to pursue a doomed relationship with a cruel stranger in Harry Wootliff’s well-crafted follow up to Only You.

Ruth Wilson as Kate in True Things (2021)
Ruth Wilson as Kate in True Things (2021)Courtesy of Picturehouse Entertainment

True Things is in UK cinemas now. 

Slow, tender moments of physical intimacy play out in a soft-lit utopian glade in the film’s opening scene, the sun drenching the couple’s skin with an over-exposed, social media-ready aesthetic.

Kate’s affair with the unnamed jobseeker she meets at the job centre where she works – Blond, she calls him in her phone book – is very real, a true thing. Yet there’s something off-kilter about it from the start. Her sun-dappled dreams about their visit to a secluded stretch of river edit out the persistent hum of hovering flies, and carefully forget his reluctance to be emotionally engaged. It’s as if she’s seeing her relationship with him through the same filters that people use to present idealistic images of their lives online. It’s not that she can’t see the bleak reality of her situation, it’s that she doesn’t want to acknowledge it. 

Throughout True Things, director Harry Wootliff’s second feature, there’s a well-crafted sense that thirtysomething Kate’s reckless, often desperate interactions with men are an established pattern of behaviour. She’s skipped work (again) and fails to keep appointments with her barely tolerant friend Alison. Her parents are worried, and her mother thinks that she’s too difficult to keep a steady boyfriend. There’s never any food in her house and all her houseplants are dead. It’s only the threat of danger that seems to make Kate feel alive. 

Whether she’s riling her boss with glib remarks (“The dog ate it,” she says about her missing sick note), accepting physical and verbal cruelty from Blond, or mixing cocktails of drink and drugs with driving, she flirts with disaster at every opportunity. “I don’t know anything about you,” she says to Blond, smiling with perverse enjoyment at the risk he poses.

An uneasy psychological character study, the film brings the audience tantalisingly close to its protagonist and has them share her experiences of joy, depression and grief. There are moments of subtlety as Kate bites her lip in an oft-repeated gesture of anxiety, and moments of explosive feeling as she collapses in a storm or dances with abandon in a club. 

But it’s as if Kate holds the audience, like her family and friends, at arm’s length. It feels frustrating because it’s meant to: this is what it’s like to care for this character. And it works because of the sympathetic talents of the cast and crew. Ruth Wilson gives a mesmerising performance that’s assured in Kate’s uncertainty and believable in her oscillation between stuttering meekness and bold defiance. Ashley Connor’s cinematography also navigates the tensions between proximity and distance and finds beauty in moments of disgust – rotten plants, maggots in fruit – that underpin the film’s real-life/social media dichotomy. Alex Baranowski’s score hovers over the film with an eerie, environmental sensibility that feels like insects buzzing one moment, and like the percussive beat of raindrops the next. 

Ruth Wilson and Tom Burke in True Things (2021)
Ruth Wilson and Tom Burke in True Things (2021)Courtesy of Picturehouse Entertainment

With Kate’s guard staying up and her barriers refusing to come down, the script never gives us any explicit insight into her motivations. There are clues that point to past experiences of trauma and a lack of self-worth, though, and her casual response to aggressive misogyny from a client at the job centre (“Ugly bitch,” he practically spits at her) is telling. In the absence of direct cause-and-effect plot lines, it would be easy to write off the film’s treatment of Kate, with her knowing appetite for risk, as victim- blaming. But that would do the story and Wootliff’s directing a disservice. True Things – adapted from a novel by Deborah Kay Davies – is a film that refuses to simplify Kate’s experience or force the character to give everything of herself away.