When a young woman unexpectedly arrives at an older man’s workplace, looking for answers, the secrets of the past threaten to unravel his new life.
Fans wishing to see Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn ‘go the full Mendo’ as an evil pedophile will be disappointed with his latest performance in Una. There are no violent histrionics, no laidback charm or snake-like charisma. Instead, Mendelsohn plays Ray, a grey-haired, worn-faced factory manager who has rebuilt his life after going to jail fifteen years ago for having an affair with a 13-year-old girl named Una (Ruby Stokes). Now she’s all grown up and is a poised but angry young woman (played with fierce intensity by Rooney Mara). Having seen his photo in a trade magazine and tracked him down, she turns up at Ray’s new workplace determined to confront him with the legacy of the past.
Based on the 2005 play Blackbird by Scottish playwright David Harrower, who adapted his own script for the film, Una is the cinema debut of Australian theatre director Benedict Andrews. The intimate two-hander has been opened out considerably from its stage version to include dreamy but disturbing flashbacks showing the little girl and the grown man (like Lolita but from the child’s perspective), as well as adding multiple locations and supporting characters. But the heart of the story remains set in the sterile lunchroom and harshly lit packing corridors of the factory, where there’s only a fragile privacy for the uncomfortable and highly charged reunion. Ray’s curious workmates (including the excellent Riz Ahmed) continually interrupt. Adding to the tension, there’s a round of restructuring going on, requiring Ray to announce a number of layoffs and answer to his tough boss (Tobias Menzies). It’s almost impossible for Ray and Una to get a private moment to themselves, in a clever mirroring of their previous illicit relationship.
Una is very much Rooney Mara’s film. The pain and enduring damage suffered by her character are fully on display, right from the early scenes showing her as a young woman dancing in a nightclub and pursuing an anonymous sexual encounter in the bathroom. She returns home in the grey morning hours to her suburban childhood house where she still lives (in a little-girl bedroom) with her shut-down mother (Tara Fitzgerald) who wanders around like a zombie. It seems nobody has recovered from the childhood that was stolen from her, and ended in a closed-circuit courtroom.
The tension and complexity of this tragedy are contained in several questions raised within the story: What does Una really want from Ray? An apology, an explanation, or even a renewed declaration of love? And is Ray an essentially good man who made a terrible mistake, or a serial pedophile? The film’s strength lies in showing the nuance of the victim’s perspective – her love and attachment, her desire to know that she was the singular, unique, unforgettable.
There’s no denying this is uncomfortable, claustrophobic viewing, as it should be. But for all the film’s efforts to transport the story from stage to screen (tight, formal cinematography by Thimios Bakatakis, who keeps the camera in the performer’s faces; and an atmospheric electronic score by Jed Kurzel), there’s still something inescapably stagey and static about Una. Perhaps this has something to do with Mara’s adopted cut-glass English accent, delivering those lines that feel too long and perfect and well-rounded for a real-life confrontation. Mendelsohn is allowed to keep his Australian accent, and gives a convincing and surprisingly sympathetic performance. But you can’t help feeling this story worked better on stage.
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