Films are almost limitless with what they can do, new worlds can be created that we can fly around and destroy with reckless abandon. Films can show years and years of decay in one shot and beauty in another in two minutes. The stage, in particular gritty live dramas, has a bit more difficulty with moving and changing worlds, with emotions being moved to the forefront of the experience. Una, based on the award winning play Blackbird, written by the same author David Harrower is an exemplary example of character based drama. Focusing on just two people on one set, discussing one of the hardest conversations in one big scene, is not something that seems ready for the screen. Australian Director Benedict Andrews rises to the challenge however, and while not all of the many changes work, he presents a beautifully shot and impeccably acted piece of drama.
Una, named after its lead character played by Rooney Mara, essentially boils down to a confrontation. After years of no contact, Una rocks up at Ray Brooks’ (Ben Mendelsohn) place of work and from their first look at each other, it’s abundantly clear we are in for a rocky situation. The backstory is simple but extremely difficult to swallow. As a young girl, Una started a physical relationship with Ray, a much older man and friend of her father. After finally being caught out, and the long legal battle that followed, Una still carries the scars of her first relationship with a man, and seeks him out to find closure now as an adult.
From that synopsis, the play had revelation after revelation coming from one conversation in Ray’s office. The film however, can’t just be a filmed conversation, and its here where the film sometimes hits and just as often falters. The tension of the play built up over the conversation with an ever present expectation of a verbal snap from either character. It was high pressure stuff, and the basis of great dialogue and drama. However, the film negates that build up by finding more and more reasons for them to leave the confines of the conversation. With the movie taking place in the entire factory, and trading the privacy of an office with that of a lunch room, the film for the most part removes the claustrophobia the play is more well known for.
However, it’s Ben Mendelsohn’s beautifully restrained performance that elevates the material and the lack of elongated intimacy. Ben’s Ray is immediately disgusting in his act, and remorseful in his portrayal. His performance is never evil, but never innocent, and this incredibly difficult to play character walks a tightrope that is ultimately humanising. It’s an incredible portrayal that manages to skirt past the more despicable representations of what can fairly be thought of as a thankless role. You want to know more about a man whom you should initially write off.
Rooney Mara’s Una, however, doesn’t quite get the same fairness in the way the film is shot. Her performance is as good as I imagine the role could allow, but doesn’t quite get the same focus as Ray. We start the film with her, but we never quite get to know who she is, and while some could argue that this shows her as being stuck in arrested development, it could also be restricting her character arc. Adding a new character in the form of fellow factory worker Scott (Riz Ahmed) goes somewhere to elevate Una’s current mental state, but she never quite gets the chance to speak for herself, acting instead more as a vessel for the story, than as a character.
The true highlight of the film comes from the flashbacks, an element that the play couldn’t have, with a truly mesmerising turn from young Una Ruby Stokes. Her scenes with a delicately portrayed Ray, show an incredible amount of beauty and pure repulsive imagery in equal measure with their relationship. A shot on a Ferris Wheel is wonderfully simple and elegant, while another lingering shot of a bushy tree blowing in the wind left the audience shuddering with disgust. Benedict Andrews excels at the direction of the flashbacks. It’s therefore a shame then that the story kind of falls apart in the present time by moving locations as often as it does and losing that simplicity found in the flashbacks.
Una is a powerful and for the most part successful adaptation of a difficult and often untouched subject. The lead performances from the main 3 cast members are all mesmerising even though the story falters on creating a real and tangible protagonist for Una herself. Plays often made for the stage can be mixed experiences, where people can question their very purpose, but Una deviates enough to make it a worthy endeavour. Faults aside it is an impressive debut from first time film director Benedict Andrews.
SCORE – 75%