During the opening moments of Una, a 13 year-old girl arrives in her neighbour’s garden, shirt open, bikini top exposed. We then cut to the merciless gaze of a VHS camera, capturing a lengthy full-frame close-up of the same girl in a cold interrogation room, all to the deafeningly loud strains of PJ Havey’s ‘Down by the Water’.
This is our first introduction to Una, and it’s this switching between her past abuse and the explicit dissection of its present-day aftermath that forms the spine of this artfully constucted and devastating film.
Rooney Mara plays the grown-up Una, who turns up to some generic out-of-town factory to encounter Ray, a middle-aged former neighbour and family friend. Ben Mendelsohn cuts a very normal figure as Ray (now known as Peter Trevelyan – a name Una finds hilarious), with his tidy grey hair, button-down blue shirt and middle management position in a factory facing redundancies. Ray clings to the walls of the staff room, as he’s presented with the grown-up Una, with whom he had sex with after taking her away to the coast 15 years ago during an attempt to flee to Europe.
What follows is a tense two-hander, covering the course of 12 hours, moving around the factory and beyond, where Una and Ray break apart the past with fury, regret and all the complicated miasma in-between.
Benedict Andrews first directed David Harrower’s play ‘Blackbird’ in 2005, and this is an adaptation of that same play. But this isn’t your typical filmed version of a stage production. Andrews elevates the many inherent restrictions of a theatre adaptation by using them to his advantage, bringing a formalness to the film and thematically suffocating its characters through mundane settings and framing.
Everything about the location, from the housing estate where Una lives to the factory where Ray works is anonymous, bland, uniform, but what breathes life into these settings is the film’s incredibly fluid editing. Flashbacks are seemingly invoked from either Una or Ray’s memory, and this powerfully counterbalances the present day encounter; offering breathing space, insight and a disconcertingly romanticised version of the past.
But despite the 13 year-old’s heartbreaking courtroom pleas of “Where did you go? Why did you leave me? I love you” and Ray claiming that he has never experienced feelings for another child Una’s age then or since – you are never made to question whether Ray’s behaviour constitutes abuse or not. It doesn’t matter that the 13 year-old child appears to be complicit or appears to give consent. “What could you have wanted from me that wasn’t my body?” the grown-up Una asks Ray. She has accepted that what happened to her was abuse. The film counterpoints ‘Lolita’ in this regard. Una (the film) in no way posits that the child is in any way to blame. Ray may claim that she was “wise before her years” but this is just him absolving himself of his own behaviour.
One of the most powerful moments in Una is shielded from our view. In a flashback, Ray sits in the park watching his 13 year-old rendezvous disappear into a small section of trees, Ray then gets up and slowly enters. What happens next is kept from us, in a long lingering shot of gently moving leaves. Our minds are left to unravel the full implications of his actions, and it’s quietly devastating. This device will be echoed later in the film with a bank of lockers in a staff room, and we’re left to question the complexity of Una’s intent.
The long-term affects on Una have been shattering. “I hate the life I’ve had.” But where the film creates ambiguity is around what Una wants out of this encounter. On the surface it’s closure and a certain amount of revenge. Much of Una’s present day anger stems from Ray being allowed to move on. Ray was charged months before the introduction of the sex offenders register. He can live an anonymous life under a new name, with a wife and a child unaware of his past. Una still lives in the same house she did 15 years-ago and had to keep her name. But it’s not as cut and dry as that.
It’s towards the end of the film, where the previously nostalgia-tinged flashbacks give way to heartbreaking scenes of the teenage Una searching for the man she trusted in a seaside town in which she has been abandoned, that we realise the ultimate effect of Ray’s abuse.
The cycle of abandonment will come around again in the film, the methods of abuse will alter, but will be no less traumatic, and as the final frame rests with the 13 year-old Una, alone in a bed and breakfast by the sea, we realise Una’s abandonment will resonate for the rest of her life. 5/5