Some movie romances work as a result of artfully wrought drama and sparkling human observation. Others work because we fall so hard for the central couple ourselves that we’ll root for them through any number of contrivances. It might do writer-director Harry Wootliff a disservice to call her mature, thoughtfully conceived debut feature “Only You” one of the latter, but the tinderbox connection between stars Laia Costa and Josh O’Connor is what elevates this grown-up relationship study from respectable to lovable: As unlikely lovers in perennially autumnal Glasgow whose fast, initially carefree bond is tested by fertility problems, their tenderly entwined performances ensure that the most familiar elements of Wootliff’s script invite empathy rather than indifference.
Building on their breakout turns in “God’s Own Country” and “Victoria,” respectively, rising stars O’Connor and Costa represent the most internationally marketable element of this classy British production, which exudes a lot more upscale polish than its tiny budget might suggest — thanks in large part to Shabier Kirchner’s burnished, cashmere-plush lensing. (Catalan actress Costa also comes direct from Dan Fogelman’s “Life Itself,” a tear-jerker of significantly more expensive, more overwrought, more American proportions; Wootliff’s film aces any comparison between them.) Production company The Bureau has had its greatest successes thus far with Andrew Haigh’s brand of intimate domestic drama; given the right multi-platform push by U.K. distributors Curzon Artificial Eye, “Only You” could cultivate a younger version of the arthouse audience that saw itself in “45 Years.” Abroad, this recent London fest premiere will slot easily into further festival programs.
Proceedings begin with a tidy meet-cute on New Year’s Eve, as Elena (Costa), a Spanish arts council worker, and Jake (O’Connor), a Ph.D student and moonlighting DJ, clash over one of the few available taxis roaming Glasgow’s streets in the wee hours — though as their awkwardly shared ride is halted for Elena to throw up on the sidewalk, it’s clear that “Only You” is a romance still rooted in less pleasant realities. Wootliff, along with editor Tim Fulford, is pleasingly brisk with the narrative formalities, as we cut to the pair drunkenly making out to Elvis Costello in her shabby-chic apartment. Jake and Elena move pretty quickly themselves: in a matter of weeks, a one-night stand becomes a co-habiting relationship.
Indeed, they’re shacked up before Elena reveals to Jake that the age gap between them is greater than he presumed: She’s 35 years old to his 26. While sensitive, non-patriarchal Jake has no reservations about dating an older woman, the ticking of her biological clock is tacitly audible to them both. As swiftly and spontaneously as they got together, the couple jointly decides to try for a baby — yet while they have all the chemistry in the world going for them, biology is not on their side. As the couple embarks on the slow, stressful, and far-from-certain route of IVF treatment, it begins to seem that mutual adoration may not be enough to keep them together. If, from this point, “Only You’s” storytelling stalls and circles a bit, that’s largely the point in a film that asks how long a relationship can subsist on shared hope before recurring disappointment turns it toxic. (That the word “adoption” never once surfaces in proceedings is a surprising blank space in Wootliff’s otherwise well-shaded, emotionally credible script.)
The age difference between Jake and Elena is an unconventional dynamic — all the more so in the realm of cinema — that “Only You” explores with wit and candor, as well as a breezy matter-of-factness that doesn’t condescend to either character. (After all, far greater gaps between older men and younger women pass without comment in mainstream romantic dramas all the time.) Neither is their relationship idealized at the expense of showing its tenuous, ill-informed fault lines: It runs first and foremost on sheer desire, and O’Connor and Costa play it so warmly and unaffectedly that we’re as inclined as they are to overlook the cracks. As Jake, O’Connor balances easy charm with a volatile streak of impetuosity that runs hot and cold according to the situation; Costa has the more grueling job as matters progress, and is quite wrenching as the mounting physical and psychological exhaustion of their quest to conceive takes its toll on her.
So closely and exactingly drawn is their relationship that secondary details of their lives and environment seem a bit vague by comparison. There’s limited explanation of how a Spaniard and a middle-class Englishman both came to settle in Scotland, while their surrounding circle of friends and colleagues wants for plausible detail and diversity. Whatever the circumstances that brought them there, however, Glasgow makes for a pretty dreamy backdrop to headlong infatuation and lingering heartache alike. Rarely afforded its due on screen, Scotland’s big port city gets a toasty glow-up under Kirchner’s lens, emerging as a city to fall in love to, with and in — not the only way in which “Only You” bridges realism and romanticism to stirring effect.