IT has been a while since a film – outside of the horror genre – made me wriggle uncomfortably in my seat.
But Una, an adaptation of well-travelled – and controversial – play Blackbird made me uneasy throughout. But the uncomfortable watch was one worth enduring because the film deals head-on with the difficult and devastating issue of child abuse.
Una (Rooney Mara) is a 27-year-old women who tracks down and confronts Ray (Ben Mendelsohn) – the man who sexually abused her as a child. Fifteen years on from Ray’s horrible acts, the two trawl over their past together as Una desperately seeks answers about what happened – and the present.
Behind the camera, Una sees Benedict Andrews step into film for the first time after building a respectable reputation in theatre.
Andrews, who directed a German production of Blackbird in 2005, has long had his eyes set on bringing this harrowing story to the big-screen – and even enquired about the rights to the film in the late 2000s. Eventually, the forces behind the film sought a director and Andrews was quick to step forward.
Speaking at a Curzon Bloomsbury Q&A, the fiercely intelligent director explained why he felt Blackbird (written in 2005 by Scottish playwright David Harrower) was the right project to transition into film.
He said: ‘I was fascinated by how this play might translate into cinema. How the special intimacy of the camera might let us get closer to Ray and Una, and the knot that binds them in this deeply ambivalent relationship they are stuck in.’
Unlike the claustrophobic theatre space Blackbird inhabits, Una is able to cut away from Ray and Una’s verbal jousting and provide telling visuals of their past together. This cinematic addition is just one way Blackbird and Una – despite their shared narrative foundation – are different experiences.
As Andrews explained: ‘The play functions beautifully as a verbal boxing match, but a lot of how that works in the theatre is to do with rhetoric. As an audience you are sitting in the same room as they slug it out in the single space of this lunchroom. You are almost, as an audience, a silent jury weighing up what is truth.
‘In the film, as soon as you start to show what happened, it changes that dynamic. You have opened up a different integration of the truth and of the gap between what is spoken and unsaid, and other signs that the cinema can begin to expose.’
The film predominately takes place at Ray’s work place (a giant warehouse). This sees Una and Ray move between hiding places as they search out a private spot for their highly-charge conversation. With this, they move through plain-white corridors, locker rooms, storage areas and bathroom cubicles.
Andrews told the audience that this approach was part of a Kubrickian idea of a labyrinth. The notion – which diverts from the stationary ping-pong style of the play – is that we are following Una’s pursuit to reclaim her past.
This pursuit is driven by Una’s desire to discover more about her identity – and, in some way, attempt to salvage it. As well as the labyrinth, Andrews uses mirrors and reflections to underline this inner-search.
In an early scene, we see Una engaging in a casual sexual encounter in a nightclub bathroom. Pressed up against a mirror, Una is forced to look at herself and her decisions – this is who she has become.
With cinematic form, we also get the added stylistic elements that come with cinematography. Andrews noted that he and his director of photography – Thimios Bakatakis (The Lobster, Dogtooth) – made some rules for the film. Among them was to use no hand-held shots.
This decision, a more time-consuming approach, lends itself to a probing visual style, one which Andrews hopes is ‘tense and pressing’ for audiences.
Likewise Andrews pointed out that the camera gives an opportunity for telling close-ups of our characters. He even cited the nuanced – yet still powerful – image of Una’s quivering lip during an exchange in a toilet cubicle. It is a detail that pays testament to yet another remarkable and brave lead performance from Mara, following this month’s A Ghost Story.
Andrews rightly did not hold back in his praise of Mara, while acknowledging that it was ‘fairy godmother’ – and megastar – Cate Blanchett that helped bring the two together.
Blanchett, who starred alongside Mara in Oscar-winning Carol in 2014 and worked with Andrews on theatre productions of The War of the Roses in 2009 and The Maids in 2014, was all too happy to be the matchmaker.
Speaking glowingly of Mara, Andrews told the audience: ‘Rooney was my first choice. I thought she was the perfect person to play this role. I felt, and it is clear she does, have the bravery to tackle it and put herself on the line. I love the fierce intelligence she has with a kind of beguiling beauty.
‘You could have cast it with an actress who was a bit more ‘girl-next-door.’ But I love that Rooney has this almost alien beauty or this kind of enigma that makes you want to know her. But it’s not necessarily easy. You’ve got to kind of come to her.’
Along with Mara and Mendelsohn’s work, Andrews’ film introduces characters that do not feature in the stripped down setting of Blackbird. Most notably is Ray’s disgruntled and oblivious colleague Scott (Riz Ahmed).
Andrews was also quick to point out Ahmed’s important role in the film. He said: ‘We were lucky to have Riz come in. That role of Scott is so important because they (Una and Ray) are in their own locked off bubble which sometimes can get uncomfortable for us and we want a bit of fresh air and he sort of becomes that.
‘He’s the kind of normal world and he also even brings a different acting style as well. He’s such a natural smart, present actor.’
Ahmed’s presence is welcome respite in among such a weighty subject matter.
Although Una may be a testing trip to the cinema, it is still a film I strongly recommend you take a chance on.
Films such as Una do not give us universal answers, nor do they claim to. Rather, they open a much-needed and perhaps, more nuanced debate about issues as troubling as paedophilia.
A Second View of Una (Film Review)
UNA is a brave film about a subject that most of us do not like to discuss – paedophilia. I am sure the film will polarise audiences because it refuses to provide clear cut answers and muddies the waters between wrong and right.
Yes it is an uncomfortable watch but it is also thought provoking. You leave the cinema feeling slightly dirty and with key questions unanswered.
Is the abuser Ray (a brilliant Ben Mendelsohn) still abusing? Or do you believe him when he says Una was a one off? The fact that he lies to Una when answering some of her questions does not help his defence.
As for Una (a stellar like performance from Rooney Maria), it is obvious that her abuse at the hands of Ray has horribly scarred her. But does a little bit of her still ‘love’ Ray? Some will shudder at the thought.
This is dangerous, sensitive territory which director Benedict Andrews masterfully negotiates Mendelsohn and Maria through. A super support performance from Riz Ahmed as a cheeky Scott (a worker who reports to Ray at the warehouse) provides a little light relief along the way.
Una is the second film I have watched on paedophilia in the last couple of months (Butterfly Kisses – see review).
Of course most cinema goers will prefer to be either consumed by the cinematic genius that is Dunkirk or entertained by the witty Big Sick.
But the strength of cinema is that films such as Butterfly Kisses and Una are made and force us to think about issues we would rather sweep under the table. Benedict Andrews and Rafael Kapelinski (Butterfly Kisses) deserve great credit for their bravery in tackling such a taboo area.
I urge you to watch Una. It is a film that will not leave you and will get under your skin. Indeed it may well annoy you. But surely the point of cinema is to challenge and stimulate debate. Una will certainly do that.
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