A thorny adaptation of David Harrower’s already thorny play, Una takes on a subject that’s largely been excluded from cinema – and for good reason. For how to depict the truth of paedophilia on screen without showing the act itself, or making the emotionally manipulative relationship seem offensively romantic? Stanley Kubrick struggled, and while Benedict Andrews certainly tries to make the story of Una (Rooney Mara) – a woman who, as a child, engaged in a relationship with Ray (Ben Mendelson), and has decided to seek him out and confront him – feel like a cinematic revelation, he’s ultimately at odds with his material, which is both too stage-like and too hot, so to speak, to handle.
An opening – largely dialogue-free – montage introduces us to Mara’s Una, who’s remorselessly haunted by her memories and thus lives in a world of temporal dissonance. Andrews tries his hand at a Lynne Ramsay-style of editing: freely switching between images, times and places, with music abruptly cutting out, to try and place us inside the head of someone who’s not only traumatised but heartbroken. (She was abandoned by Ray in a hotel room after they had sex.) Ray now works as a manager at a large warehouse and goes by the name Pete in an effort to distance himself from his past life. But Una’s arrival dredges up all kinds of emotions and prompts a perverse battle of words and wills between the two.
It’s with Una’s first confrontation with Ray that the problems of the film become clear; while the dialogue that spills out is appropriately messy – and while Mara and Mendelson are more than capable of inhabiting the roles of aggressor and victim, or vice-versa – it’s inextricably linked to the medium from which it came. Much of the second act sees the two characters bounce around various rooms of the warehouse, but it can’t distract from the fact that their interactions are plainly meant to be a continuous duologue for actors to enunciate upon the stage. The images that Andrews and his cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis come up with then start to feel, at best, superfluous and, at worst, offensively pretty, dressing up its ugly wordplay with pleasing atmospherics.
And yet, there’s still something to be admired in the go-for-broke ambition of Una, which at least tries to make something provocative and committed. It boasts some of the finest performances of the year – Rooney Mara is stunning as the broken bird of the title, while Mendelsohn and Riz Ahmed, as a sensible construction worker, are perfectly cast. It’s a film that’s messy, difficult, and completely falls apart by the end; but then, why should tackling such a subject be plain sailing?
Una is released nationwide on 1st September 2017.
Watch the trailer for Una here: