Is it ever possible to give up on wanting to know the truth? A young woman in a silver dress walks home as day breaks, after a night of clubbing and a moment of impersonal sex. Her walk, back to the parental home, is not a walk of shame. It’s a resolute march forward. A few moments later, she sets out, elegantly and conservatively dressed. Her mother thinks she is going to work, and worries she might be late. In a beautifully filmed moment, mother and daughter stand beside each other. They look so alike, but their quiet estrangement from each other is palpable.
The young woman, Una, is not on her way to the office but to confront a man, Ray, who abused her when she was a child. The exchanges that follow are fascinating and confusing.
Una is based on a highly successful play, Blackbird, by David Harrower. While the film’s origins as a two-hander stage play remain apparent, its translation into film works well, thanks in part to strong performances. It is an affecting chamber piece. Rooney Mara as Una is a compelling presence, her quiet intensity propelling the film forward. What does Una want? What is to be gained from confronting Ray?
Ben Mendelsohn as Ray is excellent at foiling any attempt at clarity. There is something to this seemingly very ordinary and quiet man, someone who looks like a kindly father, which is elusive – despite his shifty mannerisms. He frequently looks about him, checking for observers. It feels difficult, however, to imagine him causing harm to a child, manipulating with intent.
Una is an unusual film, in that it understands better than most the complexities of trauma, and how attempts to wrestle out of traumatic experiences can be frustratingly inconsistent. There is an interesting parallel with Thomas Vinterberg’s 1998 film, Festen. Here too, a victim of abuse eventually stands up and makes a systematic, repeated, obstinate attempt to set things right. What Una provides however is something further – an insight into traumatic attachment and its aftermath. More than denounce, Una needs to know. She needs to know if Ray loved her, if he chose her out of love, and is in all respects an ordinary man. Or if he chose her because she was a child, and he is a paedophile. She needs to know if she was the only one, or one of many. She is stuck in a double-bind, and confuses attachment and love. She wants the truth. She also wants, still, his love, and to be drawn back into the comfort of childhood moments which are gone forever. She is in hell.
Una’s strategy is to keep on asking Ray, time and again, over hours and into the night; following him, trying to seduce him at one point, finding out about his new life, his new home. He persistently deflects her attempts.
The film is compelling and somehow, despite the difficult subject, enjoyable to watch. Part of the enjoyment comes from Una’s dogged, if confused, search for clarity.
Rooney Mara as Una, and Tara Fitzgerald as her mother, convince hauntingly as mother and daughter distanced by despair. We get a glimpse of a parent’s powerlessness, a life altered by the knowledge they could not protect their child, and cannot help them get better.
Riz Ahmed, who plays Scott, Ray’s trusting friend, provides a quiet counterpoint to the tragedy. He, no doubt like all who are close to Ray, will be betrayed. The wide-eyed kindness of his character is affecting, and opens a further dimension to the ripples of hurt around Ray.
Una is a rare example of a film where flashbacks do work very well, adding to the complexity of the story, in a dynamic way. Much of the film is shot in artificial light, in windowless interiors, or at dawn or twilight. The sunny, slightly soft-focus scenes are those in flashback, of Una’s childhood when she is being groomed by Ray. Thimios Bakatakis’s (Dogtooth, The Lobster) cinematography adds to the ambiguity of the film – the flashbacks are visually those of golden memories, idealised moments – highly subjective given their context and their eventual outcome.
Jed Kurzel’s (The Badabook, Slow West, Alien:Covenant) insistent score underpins to powerful effect Una’s relentless pursuit of the truth.
Una is in a double trap. Ray manages to move on – or does he? – both in life and perhaps in the audience’s mind. It might take an alert and knowledgeable cinema audience to fully capture the unpalatable aspects of his character. Does it matter if he harmed once or several times? Meanwhile, Una remains defined, both in the story and by the film, as a maddened victim. What has happened to her has become central to her existence. Does the final twist in the film help her free herself from her burden?
Director: Benedict Andrews
Screenwriter: David Harrower, from his play Blackbird
Cinematographer: Thimios Bakatakis
Music: Jed Kurzel
Cast: Rooney Mara, Ben Mendelsohn, Tara Fitzgerald, Riz Ahmed
First published on FilmlandEmpire, August 2017