Adapted from the award-winning play Blackbird, Una centres on Rooney Mara’s titular protagonist who abruptly departs her aimless cycle of one night stands and empty conversations with her mother when she sees the photo of the man who groomed her as a child (Ben Mendelsohn), and decides to confront him at his place of work. As truths are spoken and old feelings emerge, will Una find the closure she so desperately needs?
The film has been accused of not being able to break free from its theatrical routes. Originally a two-hander written by David Harrower, the play consisted solely of the confrontation between Una and her abuser Ray, fifteen years after their illegal and immoral affair. Theatre director Benedict Andrews – in his first feature film – certainly attempts to widen the scope of the story for cinema – there are flashbacks to depict Una and Ray’s relationship as it happened years prior, along with an increased number of settings and characters. However, the real meat of the piece lies in the same enclosed confrontation between the two characters at his workplace where years of history, regret, lust and grief all spill out in a verbal lashing. This may prove to be too enclosed for some, but it really lets the actors hit it out of the park with their performances.
Rooney Mara continues to pick roles in either experimental or hard-hitting features – this year she has already made us grieve with her in the lyrical A Ghost Story, and either dazzled or infuriated you in Terrence Malick’s divisive romance drama Song to Song – and here is no different in her brittle melancholy and loneliness. Mara’s Una is not particularly likeable but she is highly sympathetic and tragic, a woman unable to contend with her childhood and the psychological scars left on her by the man she loved and who took advantage of her. Mara keeps Una at a distance but plays an understated grief that radiates from her no matter how far she keeps us at arm’s length. Una is closed off to the world but her tragedy is undeniable.
Meanwhile, Mendelsohn is also always magnetic – generally in roles as deadbeat family men or villains – but here is both a monster and a pathetic man, his naturalism makes him seem charming enough to understand why Una is drawn to him, but his fear of the consequences of his disastrous actions shows just how troubled and disconcerting Ray really is. Mendelsohn has a terrific chemistry with Mara onscreen that makes them sizzle but also creates an icy tension that you fear will just implode. Rising star Riz Ahmed features as Ray’s co-worker who is dragged into the drama, but receives little material to mine away, while Tara Fitzgerald delivers an icy but broken performance as Una’s mother in a perfect compliment to Mara’s showcase.
The film loses is grip as proceedings move away from the two-hander and build towards a tense but chaotic climax in Ray’s new home – it being clear that while Ray appears to have moved on, Una isn’t going to let him get back to his new routine so easily; it is in this final setting that Andrews loses the tension in places. The film offers no easy answers to Una’s plight and the parallels between the final shots and an earlier flashback fits with the pessimism that the film has already thread throughout its dark material.
Una is not an easy watch by any means – not graphic in visual content but in its emotional and verbal exchanges – but the performances will keep you gripped throughout. Yes, the film is theatrical – but who says that’s a bad thing when the actors in the spotlight are this good?
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