UNA

Empire (UK) - - ON.SCREEN - Olly richards

IT’S ONLY A short while into Una that the signs be­gin to in­di­cate this may have started life as a play. The cast list is sparse, with only a few brief in­va­sions into a two-han­der. Char­ac­ters move be­tween mul­ti­ple lo­ca­tions to con­tinue the same con­ver­sa­tion. Preg­nant si­lences abound. Some plays trans­late smoothly to the screen — A Street­car Named De­sire, Cat On

A Hot Tin Roof — but it’s not al­ways the case that a great play makes a great movie. Some need the au­di­ence shar­ing the same stuffy air as the ac­tors to build the at­mos­phere and the ar­ti­fi­cial­ity of the stage to for­give lapses in re­al­ism. Film is less for­giv­ing. Una is a pow­er­ful story that sits un­com­fort­ably in its new set­ting.

Black­bird, the David Har­rower play from which Una was adapted, won an Olivier award and Tony nom­i­na­tions. Orig­i­nally a twochar­ac­ter drama, it cen­tres on a woman, Una, in her late twen­ties who finds the mid­dle-aged man, Ray, who sex­u­ally abused her when she was 13. It’s some­where be­tween a con­fronta­tion and a re­union. Una doesn’t dis­play any ob­vi­ous fear of her abuser and con­tends still that they were in love. Ray re­jects the la­bel of “pae­dophile”, while ac­knowl­edg­ing their re­la­tion­ship did hap­pen. He has served prison time and moved on with his life, but his ac­tions had con­se­quences — Una never had the op­por­tu­nity to work through what hap­pened so is still stuck, emo­tion­ally, in a time 15 years past.

It’s a queasy jour­ney to take with them and the film isn’t afraid to wade into the murk of their re­la­tion­ship. The power be­tween them keeps twist­ing, the now adult Una try­ing to se­duce the fright­ened Ray, then be­ing low­ered by re­jec­tion. There’s the sting­ing un­fair­ness of Ray be­ing able to ‘serve his time’, while there’s no such process for the vic­tim. Har­rower’s script is care­ful not to give Ray sym­pa­thy, but it gives him space and there are very brief mo­ments of sad­ness for him, though flash­backs serve to quickly re­mind us of the abuser Ray is. (As the young Una, Ruby Stokes does a su­perb job play­ing a girl who is play­ing at grown-ups.)

As Una, Rooney Mara puts her aloof screen pres­ence to strong use. Una isn’t like­able, but she has no rea­son to be. Mara makes her a woman who’s just about held some­thing to­gether from a life that should have bro­ken her. Ben Men­del­sohn is bril­liant cast­ing as Ray. Even play­ing mon­sters, there’s a charm­ing qual­ity to him, which is the kind of mud­dled mes­sage Ray needs.

Di­rec­tor Bene­dict An­drews, whose back­ground is in the­atre, makes bold choices with vary­ing suc­cess. He cuts harshly be­tween time­frames in a way that can be dis­con­cert­ing, but which works for the con­fu­sion of Una’s state. Some­times its con­trasts are hor­ri­bly ef­fec­tive, one cut jump­ing from grown-up Una ly­ing on a child’s bed to Ray and young Una on a Fer­ris wheel, Ray try­ing to turn what looks like a pa­ter­nal scene into a ro­man­tic se­duc­tion. But An­drews’ choice to give the film a stylised look, with lots of Kubrick­ian cor­ri­dors, en­hances the stagi­ness in­stead of re­duc­ing it.

Once the cen­tral con­ver­sa­tion is done, the film stut­ters. The fi­nal 20 min­utes strives to find some­thing that would work as a sat­is­fac­tory con­clu­sion, but doesn’t re­ally man­age it. The prob­lem be­ing there isn’t a story out­side Una and Ray’s ex­tended dis­cus­sion. It has a sit­u­a­tion that suits a play, but not a plot that suits a film.

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