Australian director Benedict Andrews’ debut feature, Una (2016), tackles no small issue. Based on David Harrower’s play, Blackbird (2005), the film follows Una (Rooney Mara) as she confronts her abuser, Ray (Ben Mendelsohn) fifteen years later. (He was 40, she was 13). Unfolding almost entirely in a work break room, this story falls short of unpacking a nuanced topic, and equally fails to highlight the objective damages of the story. As a result, it is a struggle to respect the bolder revelations of the film, which seem to fetishize and make spectacle out of something that should emphasize the tragedy and abuse of the characters’ history.
The film feels confined, like a theatrical production, set largely in the work break room, a space one can imagine being pinned within as an audience member, forced into observation and complicity with Una and Ray’s interactions. In Una, empathy lilts towards damage, as we find ourselves growing closer to our Humbertian antagonist, Ray. Una is largely portrayed as a cunning, vengeance-seeking woman (“you’re sick, you need help,” Ray says multiple times. This statement may be true, but it does not serve to pinpoint him as the source of these damages, of Una’s ‘sickness’). These portrayals twist us perpetually away from the truth of the situation.
The Guardian’s review of Una suggested the film portrayed the protagonist as “just another crazy woman,” an agreeable observation, to some extent — not because of Una’s portrayal, but because of the lack of clarity around Ray’s truth: he is a child sexual abuser, yet that seems to become clouded by the constructed ‘depth’ of he and Una’s relationship.
These faults addressed, it is hard to deny the emotional toil the film makes the viewer endure. From the moment Una nervously pukes in the garden bed outside Ray’s work, to the closing credits, one can feel a distant echo of her same nausea. The flashbacks and retellings of Una and Ray’s history emotionally ‘lilt’ us towards sympathy, empathy, and cloud the truth of their relationship, whilst we as viewers are forced constantly to push against this tide of emotion, and remain objective. On paper, there is no obscurity to Ray’s abuse of Una, yet the proximity and emotional ‘steepage’ to their interactions as adult muddy this clarity. The film chooses to explore a serious topic, and in doing so, has obligated itself to do it properly. Anything less is damaging. One is left asking (of many films on topics as challenging as this one): Does the import of this story justify the means of telling?
Ben Mendelssohn was interviewed after the screening, and on his character Ray, he said, no ambiguity about it, “he is full of shit.”
SMALL OR BIG SCREEN: Small screen. Nothing particularly creative about this storytelling. The dialogue and performances slip a little in the peripheral scenes, but Mara and Mendelssohn’s deliveries make the hefty weight of this story believable.
INCLUSIVITY: Two people and one severely underused side role (Riz Ahmed)…not so good.
THIS OR FESTEN (Thomas Vinterberg, 1998)? Ultimately, this film is stylistically and creatively uninteresting — the cameras, the set, the construction exists purely to carry the story. Go for Vinterberg, Festen or The Hunt (2012), which both address the central problems of doubt and ambiguity head on, something Una fails to do.