Based on a play called “Blackbird” Una deals with the aftershocks of decades long trauma. When a woman Una was a 13 year old girl, a middle-aged man and friend of her father, named Ray, began a relationship with her eventually involving sex. It’s an uncomfortable topic that makes for an uncomfortable viewing experience. Statutory rape is a real and terrifying concept that leaves scars for years. It has the power to fundamentally change people and their perceptions.
There is a powerful center taking hold of Una and its titular character, with scars both physical and mental drive the progression of the story. It is in Una that drives one woman’s search for tangible feeling. Or is it in Una that drives Ray’s story, a man trying helplessly to escape from his past? Is Una looking for validation, confrontation or something else entirely? It’s left up to the audience to decide how it progresses. And I’m not sure that’s the best course of action given the subject matter.
Rape is not a subject one can take lightly. While I wouldn’t proclaim Una takes the subject matter any less serious than it deserves, I would say its attempts to tackle the heavier topics simply fall short due to a specifically distant lens the camera allows us to perceive the events we’re shown.
First time director Benedict Andrews doesn’t quite feel confident enough to frame the events in any specific manner. Even with ambiguity, there needs to be something grounding the camera as a part of the cinematic tapestry. A camera is a piece of the puzzle, not simple a doorway into the world. It feels too mellow, to untouchable to feel pivotal. It feels appropriately like a stage play (not because it was one) but in its blocking of actors and closeness of the performers.
Speaking of which, Rooney Mara and Ben Mendelsohn are doing outstanding work here. Rooney Mara as Una is soul-shattering, nevertheless portraying someone both hollow and driven. Mara plays Una like someone who wants something, still making the audience question what she wants and who she is. Andrews stages the opening at Una’s mother’s house, where Una still lives in her late 20s in a state of perpetual arrested development, implied as a tragic repercussion of her rape. On the flip side of that talent coin, Ben Mendelsohn as Ray is on a downward spiral from the moment Una confronts him. He’s trying to usher her out of his new life. There are implications that Ray is merely trying to forget his past mistakes, but why? There are even seedier implications that Ray is trying to keep his new life together, he is still attracted to Una, all before Ray genuinely tries to convince himself that he may loved a child, which has its own sickening connotations.
Given the way the camera moves between the two characters of Una and Ray, it’s unclear what is happening between the two. However, given the performances individual moments play like a boxing match. Verbal sparring is what fills the film with its tension, like a tightrope in a carnival performance where nothing is working as well as it should. It’s hard to deny it’s a darn powerful tightrope act, but it’s even harder to ignore the surroundings that need some more attention to detail.
Una is not a great film. Yet, it has great performances that feel true. Director Benedict Andrews allows the actors to truly craft some complex and challenging emotions. Andrews has plenty of potential if he ever wants to return behind the camera. If he keeps working at it, Benedict Andrews might just be a name worth tuning into.