NZIFF 2017 Review: UNA And The Aftershocks Of Abuse

Acclaimed play BLACKBIRD makes for harrowing screen viewing.

Content warning: this review and the film reviewed contain discussions of child abuse.

Adapting stage plays to the screen is harder than it might seem. On stage, there’s only the actors, the audience, and their combined imaginations; on screen, we expect a greater degree of naturalism, actually seeing imagery rather than having it implied to us through dialogue. Neither approach is better or worse than the other; they’re just different mediums with different strengths.

David Harrower’s 2005 play Blackbird is a particularly tough case. Taking place in a nondescript workplace staff room, it’s a fiery two-hander between 28-year-old Una (Rooney Mara in the film), and Ray (Ben Mendelsohn), her former neighbour and abuser from fifteen years prior. One has moved on with his life; the other never can, but seeks to hash things out for reasons unclear even to her. The illustrative nature of the new medium adds elements that threaten to derail the script’s intentions, but the play’s searing emotional power has lost none of its sting in Harrower’s and theatre director Benedict Andrew’s adaptation.

At its heart, Una is a raw, frank examination of the psychology of the abused, the abuser, and abuse itself. As such, it’s almost unbearably tough at times, particularly given its stagey intimacy. Harrower’s dialogue is graphic, blunt, and painful to hear - and it should be, even if it’s not entirely believable that this discussion would take place so readily. This abuse isn’t just physical or sexual; the true damage is, of course, emotional, made all the worse by Una having been, to the degree that a suggestible 13-year-old can be, a willing participant.

Maybe this “stupid girl with a stupid crush” wanted to be a grown-up; maybe it was purely Ray’s manipulative grooming. Either way, Ray’s abduction, disappearance, and the invasive trial, interrogations and physical examinations that followed leave Una emotionally scarred when we meet her. Given the prevalence of rape-revenge movies, at first we think her visit to Ray's workplace is motivated by vengeance, but it quickly becomes harder to pigeonhole: a strange compulsion to seek out the one person she ever connected with, however non-consensually, because she can’t connect with anyone else.

Meanwhile, Ray has, nominally, moved on. Having served four years in jail, missing the introduction of sex-offender registration by months, he’s successfully taken a new name, a new job, and a new wife, all built on carefully cultivated justifications for his past. Even as suppressed memories come flooding back, in the nonlinear way that they always do, he splits hairs over his moral culpability. He’s not one of “those,” he says of child porn addicts and serial molesters; he only did it the one time. He never wanted to hurt her. He had personal problems at the time. And so on. Ray is genuinely haunted by what he did, but his regret is self-serving, never taking Una's suffering into account. It’s hard to trust him, especially when his rebuttals seem calculated to control the situation.

As a (mostly) two-hander, Una’s success rests largely in the hands of its leads, and both deliver focused, burning performances. Mara spends the film’s opening alone, dropping us into her disconnect from normal relationships, and when she meets up with Ray, her delivery of Harrower’s blunt dialogue couldn’t be more incisive, as she oscillates between rage, confusion, and matter-of-factness. Mendelsohn plays Ray intelligently, painting a believable picture of a man who knows what he did was wrong, but has constructed a lattice of half-truths to shield himself from his own guilt. It’s as tragic a performance as Mara’s, for vastly different reasons; this is a man who long ago started believing his own lies. The film doesn’t sympathise with Ray, but it does humanise him: he’s the hero of his own story, if not of the film’s.

In its transformation from Blackbird into Una, the action has seen significant changes. Director Andrew (making his screen debut) opens up the one-room drama by staging it against a game of cat-and-mouse between Ray and confused, angry colleague Scott (Riz Ahmed, whose playful, grown-up flirtation with Mara provides a counterpoint to her interactions with Mendelsohn). We start in the staff room, with its floor-to-ceiling windows, before moving through darkened storerooms, toilet stalls, and eventually Ray’s new suburban world. Shadows and sterile spaces isolate these two characters together, aided by oppressive, industrial sound design and atonal music. The piece needs it, too: the up-front dialogue isn’t exactly realistic, so a visual and aural atmosphere of concealment serves as a strong complement.

Una also visualises Ray and Una’s past tryst in flashback - a storytelling choice impossible on stage. The flashbacks aren’t graphic, but in combination with the dialogue, they certainly generate discomfiting unease. Andrew’s camera often lingers on Ruby Stokes, delivering a strong performance as young Una, deliberately creating a sense of voyeurism without ever becoming explicit. Bizarrely, Andrew’s focus on peripheral details and ominous establishing shots nearly strays into sensationalism, despite (or thanks to) its avoidance of dramatisation. It’s a curious consequence that hearkens back to theatre’s emphasis on imagination, and its mileage will vary with different audiences.

The final ten minutes of Una are profoundly uncomfortable viewing, as the central relationship threatens to undo Una and Ray all over again. But importantly, Ray reaches no great epiphany; Una wreaks no vengeance; nothing is resolved. Ray returns to his new home, while Una has nothing to return to. The ending is as ragged as Una’s life.

Written by a man who clearly knows he can’t truly understand the trauma he’s depicting, Una cannily doesn’t attempt to decode its subject material. It simply lays out the truths, the lies, and everything in between, leaving us to draw our conclusions. Una paints abuse as an incomprehensible moment in time that stains everything that comes after it, and that’s likely the best approach it could have taken. There will be arguments, as with the stage version, as to whether or not Una should have been made, and whether it should have been made by these people. But this draining, tense psychothriller, in refusing to resolve the unresolvable, is a powerful result regardless.