Film Review: Strong Performances Make a Tragic Una Worthwhile

 There may not be a worse time for this film to be released, echoing as it does the seemingly daily news stories about improper, abusive behavior by men in positions of power, but perhaps that’s the very reason it’s the best time. Based on David Harrower’s play “Blackbird” (he also wrote the screenplay) and directed by noted theater director Benedict Andrews (making his feature film debut), Una is the story of a young woman (Rooney Mara, Carol and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) ready to face her past and the person that troubling past has made her.

Image courtesy Facets Cinematheque

When Una was 13 (played by Ruby Stokes), she began a sexual relationship with Ray (Ben Mendelsohn of A Place Beyond the Pines and Rogue One), an adult neighbor who promised he would run away with her to a place they could be together forever. And she was so convinced she loved him that she actually believed him. Instead, the entire relationship blows up in Ray’s face and he ends up going to jail for a time.

Ten year later, Ray has managed to rebuild his life with a good job, a wife (Natasha Little) and a great number of friends and colleagues who know nothing about his past sins. On the other hand, Una’s life is a mess. When we meet her, she’s wasted and having sex with a random stranger in a bathroom stall at a club. She desperately wants to better herself, so she seeks out Ray, to do what we’re not quite sure at first. She shows up at his job, and immediately the tension begins to mount. We don’t know if Una is seeking revenge or an explanation as to why Ray abandoned her, or perhaps she’s there to say that she still loves him. At various moments throughout the piece, all these options seem equally viable.

Ray manages to maneuver her into a room where their conversation can be somewhat private, but since he’s in a position of power, a lot of people are looking for him, including his friend and co-worker Scott (Riz Ahmed). Although there are peripheral characters in Una, the film still feels like an intense, emotionally turbulent stage work with these two characters—fearful of one another—at the center. She seems to want multiple apologies from him, but he claims that he’s a different man than the one who abused her trust and body. She either doesn’t want to believe him or doesn’t want that to be true.

It’s almost a shame that director Andrews allows Mara to play her character as unstable and angry most of the time, because seeing Una as cool and collected might have been almost more unnerving. Ray makes the fatal flaw of pretending to understand Una’s pain, which of course he never could. And it’s clear from the look in his eyes that all he wants is to get her out of his place of work as soon as possible, while she clearly understands that as long as they remain there, she has all the power.

Una is not exactly a classic battle of wills, but an attempt to get to the heart at what it takes to heal and forgive (assuming either are possible). Mara and Mendelsohn are two of my favorite actors working today, if only because both seem committed to tackling unconventional material on a regular basis. In particular, Mendelsohn (who is also featured in this week’s Darkest Hour) is a wonder to behold, moving from guilty to lovestruck to terrified, all within a single sequence. Mara does tortured souls better than just about any other actress of her generation, and it’s hypnotic watching her navigate from passive to aggressive in a broken heartbeat. There’s almost no way Una won’t make you uncomfortable, but that’s likely one of its missions, and there’s nothing wrong with feeling that way, if only as a gut-check experience.

The film opens today for a weeklong run at Facets Cinémathèque.

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