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True Love - review

Rachel Cooke is entranced by the seaside town, but not by its happy endings.


True Love

Someone who doesn’t like me very much recently said to me: “You’re never equivocal about anything, are you?” I understood what he meant – I mean, I really loathe him! – but I also think that he can’t know me very well. Because the older I get, the less certain I am about books, music, films and, yes, even television. Take Dominic Savage’s True Love (17-20 June). Did I like these short films – there were five, shown on four consecutive nights – or not? I’m still not sure. I loved the way they looked and I liked most of the performances (the exception was Jane Horrocks’s drippy turn as a downtrodden housewife; no one patronises their characters quite like Horrocks). They made me well up and I was reluctant to miss one.

On the other hand, I sort of hated them, too. They were sentimental and the narratives so compressed – 30 minutes isn’t terribly long to tell a story – that their ends were inevitably unsatisfactory, being too sudden and neat. Something in me recoiled when a Turkish immigrant asked a white shop worker if her unhappy marriage had been arranged, while one of the films, in which a teacher (Billie Piper) fell in love with a female student, was just plain creepy. Would he have got away with this plot if the teacher had been male? I don’t think so.

But perhaps Savage should be allowed to fail, sometimes – or at least to experiment. He is nothing if not gifted – his 2009 drama, Freefall, still one of the finest works of art to emerge from the banking crisis. Famously, his USP is that he likes his actors to improvise. How do I feel about improvisation? I fear and despise it. (Uh, oh . . . I’m back to being unequivocal again.) My mouth goes dry, I clench my buttocks, I head swiftly for the door marked “exit”. For Savage, though, I will make an exception. He is so exceptionally good with actors, the fact that the poor lambs don’t have a script seems hardly to matter.

A few critics have complained that the dialogue in True Love was banal. I have two things to say about this. First of all, listen to yourself next time you fall in love, or break up with someone. Is is poetry that tumbles from your mouth? Second, I would rather have a banal line delivered with emotional authenticity than Shakespeare or Chekhov delivered by some ham who is acting-with-a-capital-A. (The dream, obviously, is for Shakespeare or Chekhov delivered with emotional authenticity but one can’t have everything at 10.35pm on a weeknight).

The five stories were linked, but in terms of character, only very loosely. The real connection between them was Margate, where Savage grew up (his dad was a seaside organ grinder). My God, he made the town look ravishing: the sailboat skies, the Formica cafés, that glorious terrace close to the seafront that looks like the Flatiron Building in miniature. In the last film, David Morrissey played (heart-stoppingly well) a single father who had abandoned himself to internet dating. Savage had given this character a flat in Margate’s famous 1960s tower block, Arlington House, and even this I began to see with new eyes. Adrian had the best views in England, with the result that I thought he would probably be all right even if the woman he was emailing in Hong Kong turned out to be a fraud.

She wasn’t a fraud, though. The film, like all of them, ended happily (ish); Savage, you feel, simply cannot bear to be too cruel to his creations. Only David (Charlie Creed-Miles), who’d been cheating on his wife, Sandra (Jane Horrocks), with Holly (Billie Piper, before she fell in love with her pupil), was left high and dry, receiving a generous ladle of his own nasty medicine when she finally packed her bags, encouraged by her friendship with Ismail (Alexander Siddig), a Turkish lavatory cleaner. Are you following this? Perhaps not.

Like I say, an awful lot had to happen in a short space of time. Sometimes, yes, this seemed silly, as if everyone was on speed (or, more likely, Viagra). Then again, it is good to have among us a film-maker who understands that ordinary life is full of devastating implosions. And one who loves Margate, a jewel of a town, if only you look beyond the slot machines.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Europe’s most dangerous leader