2017 | UK/USA/Canada | Directed by Benedict Andrews
Logline: A young woman struggling with the long-term effects of emotional and psychological trauma confronts the man who seduced her when she was an adolescent.
Una (Rooney Mara), late twenties, seemingly drifts through life in a loner’s daze, constantly trying to bury the pain she feels with sensory excess; dark, loud nightclubs and casual, anonymous sex. But they don’t fill the cavernous void inside her. Her psychological wounds are deep. Her mother (Tara Fitzgerald) is wary of her daughter’s damage, and senses where Una is heading when she leaves home one morning.
Ray (Ben Mendelsohn) is the boss at a packing warehouse. He’s known to his employees as Pete. Una arrives and demands to talk. Ray is very uncomfortable. They move into the staff coffee room and the beans are spilled. Fifteen years earlier Ray, who was Una’s adult neighbour, found himself sexually-attracted to the thirteen-year-old Una. Una responded to his behaviour and they began having clandestine meetings which culminated in them having sex and planning to elope. Their tryst came to an abrupt halt that same fateful night.
Now Una wants closure, or maybe its revenge. She’s not sure, she only knows she was taken advantage of and abused and she wants to understand why Ray abandoned her. Ray wants the past to remain in the past, but now the skeleton in his closet has come to haunt him. There’ll be tears before bedtime.
Andrews, an ex-pat Australian theatre director known for his work with the Sydney Theatre Company, originally directed the award-winning play Blackbird by David Harrower back in 2005. Harrower has adapted his own play for the screen and Andrews has done an exceptional job of turning essentially a two-hander into a powerful piece of dramatic cinema. Re-titled as Una, it’s a dual character study that burns with the ferocity of a psychological thriller. A provocative and delicate tale of manipulation and sexual, emotional, and psychological abuse, but also a story of damaged love.
Unlike the play, Harrower’s screenplay introduces the young version of Una, via flashback, played by Ruby Stokes. It provides the movie with a much more disturbing context than verbal memories thrown in the air by two adults at each other’s throats. The crux of the movie is the confrontation between Una and Ray at Ray’s workplace, but the climax - the denouement, if you will - takes place at Ray’s house, during a soiree he and his unknowing wife of four years are hosting. The tension is palpable.
Una is a sombre and disquieting film. The tightly-shot interior scenes, the narrow passageways work as metaphors for the walls that Ray and Una have built around themselves in the wake of their connection, and as a contrast, the individual flashbacks that both Ray and Una have, are nearly all exteriors, reflecting a sense of freedom, albeit morally corrupt.
With yet another stunning score from Australian Jed Kurzel, who is proving to be one of the most talented cinema composers of his generation (Snowtown, Son of a Gun, The Babadook, Slow West, Macbeth, Alien: Covenant), and two fantastic performances from Rooney Mara and Ben Mendelsohn, Una is a sharply resonant and deeply affecting movie. It feels uncomfortable to recommend portraits of pedophilia, but Una is compelling and insightful, the grey area as dark as charcoal, just like any dangerous and brilliant relationship drama.
The fragility and resilience of character, the nuances of trust and betrayal are exposed with intelligence, but not without risk of controversy. It’s a brave choice for Mendelsohn, and yet another role for Rooney steeped in tragedy (there’s an inherent sadness she exudes effortlessly), but as my father, an actor, used to remind me while I was growing up, “You don’t need to be a murderer to play a murderer.”