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UNA (2016) review

December 7, 2017

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written by: David Harrower
produced by: Mary Amsellem, Patrick Daly and Jean Doumanian
directed by: Benedict Andrews
rated: R (R for strong sexual content, nudity and language)
runtime: 94 min.
U.S. release date: October 6, 2017 (New York), October 13, 2017 (Los Angeles), December 8-14, 2017 (Facets Multimedia, Chicago, IL)

 

It’s hard not to think of what we see so frequently being reported each week in the news while watching “Una”, a thriller which involves sexual abuse from the past that haunts and still impacts its two main characters. The man and woman we’re watching on screen feel like the same kind of people being commented on and talked about on social media, yet what’s intriguing is when this story takes place and the uncertainty surrounding where these characters are now in life and what they’ll do. Working with Scottish playwright David Harrower (who adapts his own play Blackbird for this film adaptation), director Benedict Andrews presents an unnerving tale in his debut, humanizing both the abuser and the victim – two parties who are typically vilified or left alone, respectively – and the result is a look at confusing motivations and awkward confrontations. 

When she was thirteen years-old, Una (Rooney Mara) experienced a sexual relationship with her forty year-old adult neighbor, Ray (Ben Mendelsohn), a friend of her father’s. Now, in her late twenties, the traumatized Una shows up unexpectedly at Ray’s workplace, who is shocked and shook by her sudden appearance. It’s unclear what Una’s goal is and it’s even more uncertain how either of them are going to interact or respond to each other. There is a desire for her to make sure he’s aware that her life was ruined after what he did to her, which is a truth Ray is unprepared to face. At the same time, Ray wants to make it clear that he’s never pursued a girl before or after Una, adamant that he’s not a pedophile. Over the course of one afternoon and evening, the two characters must face their past and present, while trying to figure out how either of them will leave each other.

 

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With zero exposition, Harrower and Andrews shows us where Una and Ray are now, while gradually revisiting what transpired in the past throughout inserted flashback scenes that play out like revisited memories. We learn how Ray approached and got to know a teenage Una (Ruby Stokes) – first at social events and then later on showing up doing laps next to Una at the local swimming pool – all while showing how a young girl is slowly allured by the attention and love she is shown by an older man. At the same time, there’s the draw for Ray, who sees the allure of an innocent young girl who can be influenced by him. Of course, we know that what Ray did was wrong and “Una” never tries to explain otherwise or justify what took place, but in several flashback scenes (at times effectively layered with present-day reflective narrations) we see how their relationship built into something that never should’ve happened.

Where the two characters are in the present matters even more than the details of what transpired years ago when Una’s innocence was stolen. Una has lived in the same house she lived in when she was a teen, alongside her mother, Andrea (Tara Fitzgerald), who is just as concerned about her daughter now as she likely was back then. Una’s life has been miserable since everyone in their small UK community would come to know what transpired between her and Ray. One can assume she was labeled as a slut or a harlot growing up or just stared at in glaring silence. In the opening of the film, she is seen wandering a pulsing night club, picking up a guy and having sex with him, probably just to feel anything, maybe something akin to what she had with Ray.

 

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Rooney plays the lost Una with a palpable intensity that conveys an understandable uncertainty. She’s about as unclear as we are as to why she tracks down Ray after all these years, after recognizing his picture in a newspaper article. There’s a curiosity gnawing at her just as much as there is rage. She wants to know how Ray is today and what his life is like, as well as a desire to let him know how miserable she’s been and still is. Rooney is great at playing starry-eyed characters who are emotionally stuck, simmering under the surface with swirling emotions she fights to contain.

For someone who could easily be written as a straightforward monster, Ray is a surprisingly complex character. At no point do we sympathize with him, but we do come to an understanding that while he was completely in the wrong, he was also convinced that he was in love with this girl and there was even a point when he believed that the two of them could run away together. Thankfully, that never occurred and the police eventually intervened, resulting in Ray spending years imprisoned. Since his release Ray has been able to assemble a life for himself – renaming himself as “Pete”, rising to a management position at a large warehouse and, more importantly, having been married now for some time.

Mendelsohn has as difficult a role as Mara does, maybe even more considering he’s playing a character who has to continuously hide who he’s been, perhaps always looking over his shoulder in case he’s found out. The actor expresses his guilt with his eyes and when he expresses to Una what an terrible mistake he made in the past, it feels like even those words can’t express his regret. Still, Mendelsohn also expresses another type of guilt, when Ray acknowledges that he’s still attracted to Una, something that picks up on and draws out in another way to feel something once again. The film’s strength definitely lies in these two integral performances, both of whom manage to tap into the just the right measure of complexities that come with each character.

 

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Thinking about where Ray is at made me wonder if the roles were reversed, could a woman do the same? Is it easier for a man with a criminal past to craft a functional life amongst society than it would be for a woman? We hear about female high school teachers who’ve been arrested and imprisoned for having affairs with their male students (some of whom wind up reconnected with the student and maintaining a relationship with him) and while watching “Una” it dawned on me that we rarely hear about how these women are getting on with their lives long after the sexual behavior that altered their lives. Maybe that part of the story isn’t news, but watching Ray live in this life he crafted for himself where no one knows about his past, made me wonder if it’s easier for a man to slowly assimilate and seemingly become like anyone else.

It’s clear that Harrower’s story is something different on stage. “Una” definitely made me curious about how the story has been presented on stage. After some digging around, I learned that the stage productions of Blackbird was set primarily in an empty work cafeteria where Una and Ray have their confrontation. (I also learned that the characters have been played by Jeff Daniels and Michelle Williams in New York and William Peterson and Mattie Hawkinson in Chicago,  both of which would’ve been interesting to see). That cafeteria is utilized here as well, but Andrews broadens the theatrical setting by taking us on a tour throughout the labyrinthine warehouse, especially when Ray tries to evade his boss (often with Una in tow) after botching up a layoff announcement to his employees.

Greek cinematographer Thimios Bakatuakis (who’s lensed the films of Yorgos Lanthimos), employs a memorable look to the film, filled with bright, clean and hard edges that appear in mostly wide angles. The empty cafeteria is brightly lit (as is the warehouse washroom) with the overhead fluorescent lighting, but just about every other setting is lowly lit and slightly grainy, especially in the flashback scenes. He and Andrews work best however when the focus is up close on Mara and Mendelsohn, focusing on the twisted chemistry the two exude. It’s an approach that suits “Una”, which presents a challenging story, briefly looking at a boiling point in the lives of two people who couldn’t possibly find resolve by the time the film concludes.

The film premiered back in the fall of 2016 at the Telluride Film Festival and then at the Toronto International Film Festival and has been making its way along he festival circuit since, receiving recent limited theatrical runs.

 

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RATING: ***

 

 

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