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.