UNA

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Benedict Andrews

Stars: Ben Mendelsohn, Rooney Mara, Riz Ahmed, Ruby Stokes, Tara Fitzgerald.

Based upon the controversial Olivier-award winning play Blackbird written by Scottish playwright David Harrower, Una is a confronting film that deals with some difficult and troubling and taboo material.

Fifteen years ago, a 13-year-old Una (played by newcomer Ruby Stokes) had a crush on her next-door neighbour Ray (played by Ben Mendelsohn, from Animal Kingdom, etc), a much older man. She ran away with him, and he was eventually charged with statutory rape and served four years in prison.

Years later, Ray has rebuilt his life. He has changed his name, settled down with a good job as the foreman in a warehouse complex and is in a stable relationship. Meanwhile, the adult Una (played by Rooney Mara, from Carol and the American remake of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, etc) still bears the scars of the affair and is angry and vengeful. When she spots a picture of him in a trade magazine she goes to his work place to confront him. The confrontation is an emotionally raw one, and as they deal with the wreckage of the past, secrets and recriminations and regrets spill out.

First time feature director Benedict Andrews hails from a background in theatre, and it shows in his shaping of the material. This is a very claustrophobic drama with a series of emotional confrontations. The film is very theatrical in its staging, with most of the action confined to the sprawling and expansive warehouse where Ray works. It is dialogue-driven and features a small cast. There are a few carefully placed flashback sequences that alleviate the claustrophobic feel and reveal more details about the nature of the illicit relationship between the pair. The film raises some disturbing moral issues, but Andrews establishes an ambiguous tone that raises many intriguing questions, especially in the third act.

This complex and layered drama is essentially a two hander, and there are strong performances from the two leads. This is Mendelsohn’s best and most fearless and revealing performance for quite some time, as he charts some difficult emotional terrain. Mendelsohn elicits a measure of sympathy from the audience, until a final twist reveals a darker truth about him. Mara delivers a strong and emotionally wrought and intensely raw performance as a woman trying to find redemption and closure. She captures the years of heartache, loneliness and doubt that she has borne over the past years. Both are damaged characters, and there is a strong dynamic between Mara and Mendelsohn that drives the narrative. And our allegiances towards each of the characters shifts as the film progresses.

Young Stokes has little screen time, but she makes the most of her small but important role, depicting her as naïve and innocent and trusting. Riz Ahmed (from Nightcrawler, etc) offers strong support as Scott, Ray’s colleague and friend who also works in the warehouse, although he is underused and his character remains underdeveloped.

Technical credits are superb. There is a striking and evocative score from Jed Kurzel that nicely underscores the raw emotions. Fiona Crombie’s production design is excellent, and the expansive warehouse gives the characters room to breathe. The film has been nicely shot by Thimios Bakatakis, who is better known for his work with Yorgos Lanthimos (the beguiling The Lobster, etc).

Because of the subject matter Una is a tough and disquieting film to watch, but the superb central performances make it worth catching in the cinema.

★★★☆

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