Benedict Andrews’s Una, adapted from David Harrower’s Broadway play Blackbird, provides an unblinking close-up of the troubled and troubling relationship between a woman and her childhood abuser.
Rooney Mara stuns as the damaged Una who was seduced by her next-door neighbour as a 13-year-old and is now, 15 years on, intent on confronting him. The interaction that unfolds once she hunts him down – set predominantly in the drab interior of the manufacturing plant – is tense, disturbing and unexpected.
The challenging material is deftly handled by director and actors alike, set off by Jed Kurzel’s ephemeral score. Mara’s depiction, bringing with it some of the wounded yet determined Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the femme fatale Emily in Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects, resists easy interpretation. Visually arresting close-ups display an array of nuanced emotions as Una confronts her past and seeks to heal her festering wounds. Equally Ben Mendelsohn’s Ray remains morally ambiguous – despite his unequivocal crime, his exchanges with young and adult Una are shot through with tenderness and authenticity. Bucking against Hollywood taboos about the representation of paedophilia, the film refuses to let the audience fall into a neat perception of Una as victim and Ray as perverse predator.
Andrews also plays with the cinematic possibilities afforded by taking the story from the stage to the screen. The stifling, grey setting of the factory break room is juxtaposed with the colour and wide-open spaces of periodic flashbacks, where a young Una, played impeccably by Ruby Stokes, looks serene, innocent and happy. The act of paedophilia is never made visually explicit but reconstructed simply through ominous shots of her teenage clothing strewn on hotel room floor overlaid with a crude re-telling by adult Una. This contrasts heavily with the gritty realism of the fraught sexual encounters we see Una provoke as an intimacy-starved young woman.
Una is a brave look at a tough topic, providing little in the way of a moral compass and persistently subverting expectations. But despite the dark reality at the story’s heart, Una also has a thread of catharsis, redemption and a strange but real kind of love that runs through it to powerful effect. Though it may push boundaries too far for some audiences, it boldly ventures into unexplored territory to address uncomfortable topics and reveal a complexity of character not often attempted on the big screen.
By Sarah Bradbury. First published on The Upcoming on 10th October 2016 for the London Film Festival.
Una is released nationwide on 1st September 2017.
Watch the trailer for Una here: