Review: Sexual Abuse Drama ‘Una’ Is A Waste Of Its Huge Stars And Startling Story
This review is part of a wrap from Sydney Film Festival 2017. Read more here.
One of the higher profile festival engagements this year was Una, adapted from the controversial Tony-winning play Blackbird by Scottish playwright David Harrower. The play (which starred Jeff Bridges and Michelle Williams when it premiered on Broadway) is a tense two-hander about a couple, Ray and Una, reuniting years after the end of their relationship — which began when the much younger Una was a child, making Ray her abuser.
The film, which is directed by Australian theatre director Benedict Andrews, stars high-profile actors Ben Mendelsohn as the abuser Ray, and Rooney Mara as the titular Una. But despite the implied flash, Una turns out somewhat disappointing, suffering from that problem unique to stage-to-screen adaptations: an unjustified expansion of the tight onstage world, which renders the material weak and flabby.
As the name change would suggest, Una does indeed focus in on the film’s eponymous protagonist, following Una’s journey as she tracks down her abuser and confronts him at his workplace. But the change does not make for richer or more nuanced thematic material.
This new Una is an increasingly terrifying and vindictive subject, and her pursuit of Ray — first to confront him, then to confront their lingering passion for each other — is so intense you feel uncomfortably as though the film is asking you to sympathise with Ray, a sexual predator who groomed and destroyed a 12-year-old girl.
The film is wonderfully cast, with Mendelsohn reprising his recurring role as every story’s problematic lead. Mara is, as always, a stand-out, throwing all of her courageous and intense energy at the rock-solid Mendelsohn. And Riz Ahmed, who is one of the finest and most intriguing young actors around, is woefully miscast as a young man caught up in Ray and Una’s drama (and by Una’s fragile beauty). But however good the cast is, there’s no shaking the distinct impression that all these brilliant actors could be better served in a more interesting film — or, at least, one without the drastic pacing problem in Una.
Una attempts to justify Blackbird’s transcription to screen by broadening out Ray and Una’s world — most effectively done with a series of creepy flashbacks of Mendelsohn courting the young Una (Ruby Stokes). But, really, we’re here to watch the controversial couple reunite, and the addition of subplots to construct a wider world around the pair simply weakens the potency of their otherwise explosive two-hander scenes.
And though Andrews is an expert at filming to contain, and so much so the film often feels prickly and claustrophobic, whenever we’re anywhere other than a room (any room) with just Ray and Una, all that tension dissipates to boredom.
Una is in cinemas now.
Matilda Dixon-Smith is Junkee’s Staff Writer. She tweets at @mdixonsmith.