Una review – a singularly harrowing film with stings of stage fright

by Jamie Brown

Prepare yourself for some difficult subject matter if you watch Una, a British-set drama with an impressive international cast covering child sexual abuse and the impossibility of trying to erase permanent mental scars. With a screenplay adapted by David Harrower from his 2005 play, Blackbird, and helmed by Australian theatre director Benedict Andrews, Una attempts to transfer a huge stage success to the screen.

Una; dir.: Benedict Andrews; UK/Canada/USA 2016, 94 minutes. Our Rating: ★★★½/5

In a brief setup, we see the eponymous character as a girl (Ruby Stokes) sat outside an ordinary suburban home, before a flash-forward brings in the present-day Una (Rooney Mara), now in her late twenties, still living in the same house, and drifting through a life of nightclubs and one-night-stands. The new day sees Una, after a gap of fifteen years, decide to confront a man she ‘had a relationship with’ (i.e. was sexually abused by) as a 13-year old, and who has since served four years for statutory rape. Having located the man via a newspaper photo, Una arrives unannouced at his place of work. Ray (Ben Mendelsohn), as Una knows him, has now changed his name to Peter and is a middle manager in a warehouse.

The two of them find privacy in a dining area and the talking begins, but Una has ambushed Ray just as he is about to announce the laying-off of six colleagues in a company ‘restructure’. Already nervous and caught off-guard by Una’s arrival, he fluffs his lines and does a runner from the meeting. This leads to a game of hide-and-seek around the warehouse, with ‘Peter’ needing to give both his boss and an irate colleague the slip while at the same time facing up to Una and keeping the reasons for her presence a secret. The two of them continue to discuss the events of the past in bathrooms and store cupboards, occasionally interrupted by the search party.

The drama essentially revolves around Una’s unclear intentions. Early on, she is asked by Ray, on behalf of the audience, “what do you want?”. We guess that either revenge or closure are most likely on Una’s mind, and both could be, but the psychology of this meeting is not so straightforward. As they discuss the details of how Ray was eventually caught, Una seems angrier with his abandonment than his exploitation. The more damning the evidence that piles up against Ray via the reveals, excuses and flashbacks, the less likely a condemnation, from either Una or the film, becomes. This is a script that continually asks tough questions then refuses to deliver easy answers; ostensibly a study of the emotional wreckage left behind by childhood abuse, and a suitably complex one.

There’s something about Una that feels dated, working both to its credit and detriment. The aptly-named Harrower’s hit play was inspired by a real-life case of internet grooming that led to a child being abused and abducted, though this story dispenses with the new-technology aspect. The writing is wonderful, but noticeably pre-social media and pre-Savile, of a time when public fears were of paedophiles stalking chatrooms. Although the issues raised are still absolutely relevant, I think the expression would be different if written today. On the flipside, something this awash with ambiguity feels like a pleasant throwback to life before Twitter, when arguments had space to breathe and grey areas could still be explored.

As well as the quality of the writing, the performances of Mara, Mendelsohn and Stokes are also first-rate, all handling the incredibly sensitive material with admirable restraint and subtlety. Mendelsohn in particular uses the ambiguity in the script to afford Ray a complexity that some may find uncomfortable. The film’s weakness is the directorial transition from stage to screen, which lacks confidence and flair. It’s an age-old dilemma with adapations from theatre as to whether to retain the minimalism that brings with it dramatic tension and risk appearing unambitious, or be truer to the medium of cinema and widen the scope, tell more of the story visually, etc.

The director in this case, experienced in theatre but making his first film, tries to do both. Perhaps unsurprisingly, when the action is contained in a small space, Andrews’ stage expertise shines through and the scenes are compelling. The flashbacks that show the young Una and Ray together, and scenes in other locations, are more hit-and-miss and occasionally loosen the film’s grip just at the wrong time. I think Una could have been a better film had Andrews just filmed the play, or if an experienced film director had taken on the project.

That issue does not prevent Una from being a tough and challenging watch with some controversial moments that are likely to provoke discussion, not least since it was written by a man. It could be viewed as a more earnest sibling to the brilliant grooming-revenge horror Hard Candy, released in the same year that Blackbird was written. Una was made in 2016, at the same time that the play was subject to a Tony-winning Broadway production starring Jeff Daniels and Michelle Williams, proving that the story can still wow an audience. I’m not entirely surprised, however, that Una has so far not found itself subject to similar acclaim, as I think its real home is on the stage.


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