2016 BFI London Film Festival film

Una | Review

Andrews’ adaptation of David Harrower’s play ‘Blackbird’ is an unsettling cinematic experience but provokes broader discussion on the nature and consequences of sexual exploitation.

Dir. Benedict Andrews

Screenplay. David Harrower (adapted from his 2005 play Blackbird)

Britain, 2016

Even a few minutes into Una, a feeling of uneasiness starts to set in. A tight knot might twist in your stomach, your heart might start beating a little faster. Opening with a scantily-clad young teenage girl sitting by a tree in a suburban idyll, the stillness, silence and sense of absence in the establishing sequence immediately suggests something amiss and unsettled. As Una navigates the difficult subject matter of sexual exploitation between a child and an adult, the mixture of confusion, pain and guilt intensifies and permeate into all aspects of the viewing experience. Benedict Andrews’ adaptation of David Harrower’s play Blackbird provides an ambiguous, though at times problematic, depiction of a controversial relationship and its consequences. While sometimes gratuitous, Una uncomfortably provokes its audience to consider the nuances within sexually exploitative relationships. 

When 27-year old Una (Rooney Mara) accidentally discovers where her former abuser, 55-year old Ray (Ben Mendelsohn) is employed, she decides to go to his workplace to confront him. The film intercuts between the present and their shared history of encounters, culminating when the two eloped together. However on this illicit trip, Ray disappears and young Una (Ruby Stokes) is found by the police. In the present, the unresolved questions and psychological ramifications threaten to unravel Ray’s new life after prison. By not reducing these characters to the stereotypical rendering of a malign sexual predator and the naive child-victim, Harrower moves beyond the immediate judgements that such a confrontation could invoke in the audience. Ray is seemingly loyal to his co-workers and appears genuinely remorseful for his past actions. While Una is certainly righteous as the aggrieved victim, it is not clear what she actually wants from him. Is it justice, revenge, acknowledgement? The confrontation provokes more interesting, though troubling, questions about sexual exploitation: what is the attraction between a child and an adult? What do they see in and want from each other? Are there deeper connections or is it merely sexual? Can either person recover emotionally from these situations, and does the attraction stop for either of them? Psychoanalytic language and counselling-speak surface in the dialogue but it is not enough to satisfy these characters. Ray states that his attraction was ‘explained to him’ yet the audience questions whether the conceptualisation is designed to protect him from his urges. Harrower leaves the audience in ambiguity and confusion about both their intentions and desires, while still insisting strongly that the traumatic experience has lasting and significant psychological damage on Una. He offers no direct judgement nor  easy resolutions.

una-rooney-mara
The backdrop of the sprawling warehouse and confined staff locker-room are also effectively and powerfully utilised to unnerve the audience. 

The central relationship is strongly performed by both Mara and Mendelsohn. To the film’s credit, Mara becomes increasingly uncomfortable to watch as the situation develops, realising carefully Una’s emotional distance and obsessive behaviour. Even when Mara is in a scene with other characters, except Ray, she is not emotionally present with them. Mendelsohn is able to convey both Ray as the loyal and ‘average bloke’ trying to do right by his employees and Una, yet there are also enough suggestions in his performance that make us cautious. The audience might warm to Mendelsohn’s Ray yet still feel consciously wary of him. Other characters are just peripheral and merely serve the expansion of the two-hander play into a feature-length film. While Riz Ahmed and Tara Fitzgerald are notable as Ray’s friend and Una’s mother respectively, they remain undeveloped and become perfunctory. Stokes is impressive in her feature-film debut as the precocious younger Una. When Andrews focuses on her, filmed with a crude, digital-camera, Stokes’ performance of the emotional conflict, as she struggles to come to terms with what has happened to her, is one of the most affecting in the film. Her slightly deadening stare into the camera and calling out ‘Ray, where are you?” as she is video-conferenced to the trial is haunting and compliment Mara’s own portrayal of Una’s emotional distance and impulsivity.

The backdrop of the sprawling warehouse and the confined staff locker-room are also effectively and powerfully utilised to unnerve the audience. Cinematographer Thiomis Bakatakis uses a variety of elements to create and heighten the emotional texture of the film. When Ray and Una see each other for the first time at the warehouse, the diminution of both characters through the wide-angle opens up a vacuum between them. Consequently, all other people in the scene are pushed out and all that exists in this void is them and what has passed unsaid between them. A later chase through the warehouse in the present, as Ray becomes embroiled in a union dispute, metaphorically parallels the pursuit of the authorities to find and expose their wrongdoing in the past. The younger Ray’s choice of floral shirts show his casualness yet are also inexplicably suggestive. These contrasts of shades and colours, use of expanse and confinement, stillness and disruption, all work upon the audience to build tension or uncomfortable allusions. Jed Kurzel’s haunting music is used sparingly so that either a numbing silence or sharp jolts of noise further unsettle the audience. Arguably, this artistry eclipse the exploration into the subject matter, especially as the film climaxes with the all the aesthetic and tension of a horror-film. Ray’s heavily-shadowed house and Una’s change into a frilly ‘doll-like’ costume are perhaps allusions too far that detract from the otherwise nuanced performances. While the final confrontation between Ray and Una at his new family home should feel, appropriately, like a nightmare, it is another instance where the film could be accused of being excessive.

It must also be said that Una as a representation of a female victim of sexual exploitation is potentially problematic. Where Harrower’s writing and Mara’s performance portray a damaged young woman with sensitivity and discomfort in the earlier parts of the film, it later moves to cruder strokes as her behaviour becomes more desperate and borderline psychotic. While abuse might beget abuse, Una slowly becomes Ray’s victimiser- forcing herself on him, hunting him down. The aforementioned ‘doll’ costume doesn’t help and potentially Andrews and Harrower are reversing the audience’s sympathies in favour of the initial perpetrator. On the other hand, the audience is never quite sure whether Ray has overcome his attraction. After rebuffing Una’s sexual advances, Ray returns to his wife and has intercourse with her. But his inattention to her during the act leaves a worrying question mark over what he is fantasising about. A revelation at the end of the film also reemphasises the point, complicating the notion that the audience feel too sorry for Ray. The descent into the more overt ‘thriller’ elements of the psychological-thriller genre, while bringing the film to an intense conclusion, does create distance from the two characters and mar the deeper insights offered.

This is unfortunate as Una otherwise raises those difficult questions and successfully immerses the audience in the pain and discomfort from this most taboo subject. While there is a sense of relief once the harrowing experience of Una has ended, this is combined with a need for greater discussion on how these relationships develop; what the attractions and attachments are for both perpetrator and victim; and whether healing and reconciliation is possible for either.

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