Una flips themes of paedophilia, coping mechanisms and movies based on plays on their heads, and delivers something breathtaking, shocking and wholly unexpected.
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Twenty-something Una (Rooney Mara) arrives at the busy trade workplace of an older man named Ray (Ben Mendelsohn), much to his horror. As the pair converse privately, it’s revealed that they’ve shared a forbidden, intimate past fifteen years prior – when Una was thirteen and Ray middle-aged. Una’s search for answers from the man responsible for shattering her life brings long buried emotions and memories of the past exploding to the surface, and threatens to destroy the new life Ray has made for himself.
Fences proved earlier this year that minimalist films based on plays can shock, compel and hold huge emotional weight, and Benedict Andrews’ debut feature Una happily (or, more appropriately, rather grimly) continues that trend. You can certainly get an idea of how David Harrower’s source play Blackbird may have felt in the theatre, especially given its utilisation of a singular setting for the majority of it, but never once does the film feel stagey or too dependent on dialogue to carry it.
It’s instead carried by its two stars; Aussie Ben Mendelsohn and American Rooney Mara blend seamlessly into their British roles, each making a strong case in becoming two of the finest actors of their respective generations. Much of their incredible chemistry stems from the unexpected bond between two divisions of people rarely paired off on screen.
Though the paedophilic angle is uncomfortable stuff, Ray is refreshingly not demonised or made out to be a monster. Instead, Mendelsohn makes him genuine in his actions; a man who has accepted the mistakes he’s made and done everything he can to live a good life since. And given that we really see just how much he truly loved Una and wanted everything in life for her, it’s disturbingly convincing to, disconcertingly enough, sympathise with Ray’s behaviour.
Una is even more conflicted, having led an incredibly messy, broken life since Ray’s crimes were exposed. She’s massively volatile and unpredictable; her hatred of Ray for destroying her life clashes with the love of him she once felt… which in turn rifts against the desire she finds she still holds for him.
These two great actors are supported by an intense script and claustrophobic direction that drenches every moment in great suspense, and yearning to know what could be revealed next. There’s something almost Tarantino-style to the anxiety created in each exchange, but instead of punctuating scenes with violence, there’s always another twist or bombshell waiting stressfully around each corner. If there’s one gripe it’s that Una is too short… but in that sense, perhaps this is the perfect place to leave you – longing for more.
Una is available in Australian cinemas from June 22
Image courtesy of Madman Entertainment