Una

June 22, 2017
Una and Ray: who'll blink first?
Una and Ray: who'll blink first?

Few subjects today inspire such blind outrage as child sexual abuse. It seems that all communities require one exemplary outlet for pent-up anger and hatred. Or is it a human need to feel morally superior to someone, anyone? Our liberal attitudes have ruled out the racial and sexual prejudices of our forebears, but one would have to be very brave nowadays to treat pedophilia with the black humour of a Nabokov.

Where rage overpowers reason is when people call for Donald Friend’s paintings to be removed from public collections and destroyed because of his disreputable activities in Bali. We may as well put Gauguin’s paintings on the bonfire as well, along with the works of the classical Greeks and Romans, who saw sexual relations between men and boys as a rite of passage.

The sexual abuse of children may stir up fierce anger but the issue is more than a simple matter of good and evil. Una, the debut feature by Australian theatre director, Benedict Andrews, looks at a relationship between a 40-year-man and a 13-year-old girl, and how it effects the lives of both parties. It doesn’t inspire us with much sympathy for the offender, but explores the complex web of emotions stirred up on both sides.

The movie, based on the hit play, Blackbird, by Scottish author, David Harrower, never quite escapes its theatrical origins. The exchange of dialogue between the lead characters remains at the heart of the story with everything else acting as a frame. Even the flashbacks that deliver the past in installments do little to offset the stageiness. The credibility of the piece ultimately depends on the performances of Rooney Mara in the title role, and Ben Mendelsohn as the villain turned victim.

Andrews, and cinematographer, Thimios Bakatakis, have chosen to shoot most of the film in a dim light reminiscent of gloomy Novembers in the northern hemisphere. It is presumably symbolic of the twilight zone in which a young Una (played with assurance by Ruby Stokes), becomes infatuated with Ray, the next-door neighbour who makes her feel special.

These early flashbacks are set against scenes from the present day in which the 27-year-old Una goes to a nightclub, has a brief, loveless shag in the toilets and wanders home in the early hours of the morning. She has an office job but still lives with her mum, and sleeps in a bedroom that hasn’t changed from when she was a little girl. Clearly she is not at ease with her life.

Una has found a picture in the newspaper of the man who seduced her when she was 13, and went on to serve four years in prison. Discovering that he works at a factory on an industrial estate she sets out to confront him.

It turns out that Ray is now a middle-manager called “Pete”. Suitably horrified at this vision from the past, Ray bustles Una into a deserted canteen and begs her to leave him alone. He has a new life, a new identity. He did his time in gaol, and was never one of “them” – it was a one-off thing, a tragic mistake.

Una will not be so easily shaken off because she has spent the past 15 years grappling with the demons in her head, yet it’s hard to understand what she wants from this confrontation. On one hand she feels her life has been ruined and seeks revenge. On the other she has a bundle of unresolved feelings for Ray that have made it difficult to move on. It’s as if she can’t decide whether she hates him or loves him, and hopes this meeting will bring everything to the surface

For Ray, her intrusion is a nightmare. In a flash he sees his stable new life – his job, his marriage to a woman his own age – being trashed. To add further confusion this is the day the firm is retrenching a number of employees, and Ray must front up for the bosses. At home that evening, as we learn later, he is expected to host a party.

It’s not clear that these extra wrinkles in the plot don’t serve as unnecessary distractions. A long sequence when Ray hides from his boss and his right-hand man, Scott (Riz Ahmed), who roam around the factory looking for him, is like something from the Benny Hill Show, although not as funny.

Mendelsohn maintains a kind of tense, sulky demeanour, his discomfort always palpable. Mara opts for a glassy-eyed intensity that becomes increasingly manic as the story progresses. Her shameless manipulation of Scott, and her need to pursue Ray to the end tends to rob the story of any subtlety or ambiguity. She becomes a woman scorned, a borderline psychotic, while Ray is reduced to the status of a moral warning: ‘Transgress society’s most cherished codes and you will never escape the consequences’. It’s an oddly conventional scenario for a film that threatens to push the boundaries but never quite succeeds.

Una
Directed by Benedict Andrews
Written by David Harrower, after his play, ‘Blackbird’
Starring Rooney Mara, Ben Mendelsohn, Riz Ahmed, Ruby Stokes, Tara Fitzgerald, Tobias Menzies, Natasha Little
UK/USA/Canada, rated M, 94 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 24 June, 2017