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‘Una’ (review)

Produced by Maya Amsellem,
Patrick Daly, Jean Doumanian

Written by David Harrower,
based on his play Blackbird

Directed by Benedict Andrews
Starring Rooney Mara, Ben Mendelsohn,
Riz Ahmed, Ruby Stokes, Tara Fitzgerald,
Natasha Little, Tobias Menzies

 

Una is a brilliantly acted film, but its difficult subject matter makes it a tough sell: It’s about a young woman named Una (Rooney Mara) who confronts the man (Ben Mendelsohn) who molested her when she was just 13. The issue couldn’t be timelier, alas.

That confrontation scenario is far more open-ended and complex than you might imagine.

Una isn’t even sure of her own feelings about what Ray did to her or what she wants from him now.

Fifteen years after she last saw him, she tracks him down at his warehouse job, where he’s now going by “Pete,” and it’s clear none of his coworkers have an idea that he spent four years in jail for having sex with a 13-year-old.

During the course of several hours, she tells him what he did to her, what kind of life she’s led. She wants answers. She is angry, and confused, and lost, and hurt.

And then there comes a moment when they’re both nostalgic for their secret romance and you realize that this is not a clearcut situation about villain versus victim. It’s messy and fucked-up.

The tension of the film comes from how much damage Una plans to do to Ray in return. Is she there to kill him? Rekindle the romance? Or just expose him for the criminal that he is?

In flashbacks, we see how his flirtation with her began, how it escalated and how they planned to run away together. Una at 13 is played by the incredible Ruby Stokes, who breaks your heart in every scene.

The present day scenes are filmed in the harsh lights of the warehouse, with Una and Ray at their worst. And the flashback scenes are shot in a hazy, romantic light in parks and at the beach and on a Ferris wheel.

I understand that we are seeing Una’s past through a haze of nostalgia, because she loved him so much. But the beautiful way they’re shot also risks romanticizing the relationship. I remember hearing people say that Trainspotting romanticized shooting heroin, which I don’t agree is true. However, I was uncomfortable so often in this film. Would shooting the flashbacks in a less loving, pretty way have made a difference? Maybe not.

We hear the sordid details from the adult Una, but, fortunately, we don’t ever see anything more inappropriate with young Una than Ray holding her hand.

I took issue with the fact that we see Rooney Mara topless three times in the movie. She’s shown her breasts in films before this, but here, it feels like the movie is victimizing Una all over again. Was that really necessary?

I’m not familiar with the original play, so I can’t say how the film version compares. But the fact that Ray (or Pete, as everyone knows him now) has both a huge day planned at work and at home is convenient.

This is a tough film that is admittedly hard to watch. Besides the excellence of the acting — Mara, Ben Mendelsohn, and Stokes are all award-worthy here — the takeaway, for me, was that abuse like this is not as cut and dry as we might think from the point of view of the victim. Ray shattered Una’s life. Fifteen years later, he’s been able to move on, while she has not — and likely never will.

It’s hard not to see the film through the lens of the sex abuse scandals in Hollywood and the indie film world. And to think that every guy you meet is a potential Ray or Pete, with either such terrible abuse in his past or in his future.

 

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

 

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