Director: Benedict Andrews
Screenplay: David Harrower
Starring: Rooney Mara, Ben Mendelsohn, Riz Ahmed
Runtime: 94 Minutes
Una is the feature debut of Australian theatre director Benedict Andrews, adapted from the stage play Blackbird by screenwriter David Harrower. The play itself is a dark and intense chamber piece that deals with the repercussions of childhood abuse in later life, as Una (Rooney Mara) confronts her abuser who is now living under another name, Ray (Ben Mendelsohn), but her intentions aren’t immediately clear.
This is a really great setup for a story dealing with such a difficult subject matter, but instead of developing its ideas further and really getting into the kind of person that a victim of abuse might become as they grow up, Una is content with bringing little to nothing new to the table and stretching out its runtime discussing past events instead of developing on them and moving forward.
The film’s origins as a play are painfully clear in the staging. The lengthy dialogue exchanges as the discussion unfolds feels as unnatural and forced as the actors' movements around the main break room set. It fails to shed its roots as a piece of compelling cinematic drama, the direction by first-time filmmaker Andrews – as well as the framing and use of camera work – are too cold and observational to feel anything that’s going on emotionally.
It’s fairly pedestrian in look and amateurish in presentation, spending long stretches of silence as characters wonder down hallways that should be filled with quiet contemplation but leaves the audience with little to work with and feels like needless padding.
What’s also needless is the films contrived structure, which flashes back to various moments in their past in single shots and scattershot organisation that sometimes feels of little connection to what’s being said or felt in the present day. It’s a distraction more than anything else.
What keeps the film afloat is an occasional sense of atmosphere helped by Jed Kurzel’s sparingly used score, and the two lead performances. Mendelsohn is insidiously well cast having spent most of his career playing slimy villainous roles, but he manages to endow the character with empathy. Mara’s accent is a little wonky and unaffected throughout, but in a way it makes her feel more alien and disconnected as her long unresolved feelings felt in youth for her abuser have clearly eschewed and damaged her judgement of the situation.
Una doesn’t work as a whole; its structural inadequacies are made all the more noticeable by a lack of engagement by the presentation beyond basic forms of lighting and off-centre framing. It starts to pick up in the third act as Una’s obsessions begin to cross a line, but it lacks an emotional core for too much of it to feel as invested in the outcome.