Director: Benedict Andrews
Cast: Rooney Mara, Ben Mendelsohn, Riz Ahmed, Ruby Stokes
Watch Una online in the UK: Curzon Home Cinema / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Virgin Movies / eir Vision Movies
A film adaptation of David Harrower’s play Blackbird has been in development for much of the decade plus since its premiere in 2005, but never quite got off the ground for various reasons. One of those may well concern the transition of a two-hander play, confined to one setting, into something more obviously ‘cinematic’. This is something Benedict Andrews, a Blackbird veteran of the stage, opens up considerably for Una, his directorial debut. There are new events, new locations, flashbacks, and new supporting characters.
The more likely reason for the play’s staggered transition to the screen, though, is its subject matter. Loosely inspired by the crimes of sex offender Toby Studebaker, both Blackbird and Una depict the tense encounter between a late-20s woman and a middle-aged man, the latter of whom sexually abused the former 15 years prior, when consummating their relationship that had lasted a few months.
In the film, Rooney Mara, adopting a wavering British accent, plays the young woman, turning up at the workplace of Ray (Ben Mendelsohn), who served a few years in prison and now lives a new life under a new name elsewhere in the UK; Una’s tracking him down comes as a result of a photograph of his workplace turning up in a newspaper. The two engage in a long, draining conversation, concerning both his time served and new life (and wife), and Una’s continuing struggles with comprehending the magnitude of her abuse and her conflicting emotional responses to it – among other confusing feelings are those of what she felt was genuine love during their time together.
Unlike Ray, now known as Pete, Una didn’t get to change her name, nor did she manage to move away from the neighbourhood in which her abuse became public knowledge. Among the new additions to the original text is some time spent with Una’s mother, played by Tara Fitzgerald, which presents some compelling insight into how the trauma of child abuse can extend beyond just the victim and abuser.
Fitzgerald conveys a lot with just a few dialogue-light scenes, but some of the other supporting characters and subplots come across as superfluous padding, even for someone unfamiliar with the source material’s tighter focus. Una’s arrival coincides with some downsizing at Ray/Pete’s work, where he’s supposed to play a part in delivering the bad news to a couple of employees.
The implication is that the stress of Una’s presence impedes his judgement of navigating this also sensitive situation, but this whole subplot comes across like a time-waster in light of the overall story – a narrative device introduced solely to get Ray out of the break room chat with Una for a chunk of screen time, so as to give the viewer a bit of a recess from their conversation’s intensity, as well as to justify later moving the pair to different locations, as Ray’s superiors come searching for him. Riz Ahmed, as one of Ray’s colleagues, is also saddled with a part that’s there pretty much just to have another party get caught up in this fraught situation; he’s someone for Una to talk to during breaks from Ray and subsequently later used to get to Ray’s home for a party-set finale.
With two of contemporary cinema’s most exciting performers at the forefront, Una is a suitably tense and challenging drama, despite misgivings about how much tighter it could have been. That said, even the inherent tension loses something with the additional material. While the film’s scattered flashbacks, featuring a compelling turn from Ruby Stokes as the 13-year-old Una, are compelling, they also reduce the impact of the later confessional exchanges in the present day; the film’s opening 20 minutes alone contain several of them. For all the secret-keeping the characters have to do in their day-to-day lives, Andrews seems a bit too keen to reveal the mystery right off the bat.