A suburban home, a factory, a bourgeois backyard, a seaside town—these are the settings that move from unassuming backdrops for human narrative to quietly chilling spaces in Una, Australian theatre director Benedict Andrews’ debut feature film. Based on David Harrower’s 2005 play Blackbird, Andrews’ film stars Rooney Mara in the eponymous lead role, a 27-year-old woman who arrives at a workplace, looking for an older man. The man in question is Ray (Ben Mendelsohn), her childhood sexual abuser, who she ran away with at the age of 13 after conducting a secret 3-month relationship, only to be left abandoned in an unknown town by the ocean.
This information is revealed to us in the initial on-screen interaction between Ray and Una. It comes after a series of disjointed flashbacks, the first of which follows Una on a messy night out that includes an anonymous sexual encounter in a club bathroom, then further back in time to a younger Una (phenomenally played by Ruby Stokes), staring back at us numbly in a police investigation room as PJ Harvey’s “Down By The Water” overwhelms.
Una’s intentions aren’t clear on arrival, whether she’s seeking confrontation and vengeance, or if she is hoping to answer the question her younger self delivers in a damning court video at the film’s outset: “Where did you go Ray? I love you,” a question met by the fierce gasps of the jury. What develops throughout the film is a tense back-and-forth between Una and Ray, wadign through morally grey areas to make us squirm. They argue in a staff locker room, whisper to one another in darkened conference rooms and stand too close for comfort (ours and theirs) in a toilet stall, as the emotions shift from unspeakable rage to a tenuous intimacy. We’re never quite certain if Una views Ray as the cause of her suffering, or the cure for it. Rooney Mara is inscrutable – her face a tombstone of emotion. To heighten the tension further, Ray is being chased through this labyrinthine factory by his managers and co-worker Scott (Riz Ahmed), after walking out of a meeting where the higher-ups were demanding he downsize his staff. It’s a clever device that asks the audience to empathise with Ray in spite of our revulsion, as he is slowly boxed in both physically and mentally by the onslaught of past and present.
Transferring a stage play to the screen is an arduous task. In Una, the dialogue is, at times, too theatrical in its verbosity, and the actors are framed in rooms in the way they might appear on a stage reciting lines. Similarly, moments that would resonate in a live atmosphere seem out of place, like a scene in which Ray and Una diffuse a raging argument by throwing kitchen debris in the air. It all feels a bit contrived, as the anger dissipates and they both slide to the floor.
Flashbacks are employed liberally to connect the dots between Una as we see her and her teenage self. The editing becomes too choppy at certain points, when it would have been beneficial to focus either solely on the past narrative or the current timeline, rather than trying to convey concurrent emotional stakes.
Yet, Andrews has an extraordinary eye for making the unseemly moments impactful, showing rather than telling. In a flashback, we watch as Ray follows Una into the bushes in a park and then listen to Una in the present narrate their actions rather than depicting them on screen. As the camera slowly zooms in on the barely rustling leaves, Jed Kurzel’s gentle soundtrack has a rare opportunity to shine through. Kurzel’s score is unfortunately underused, a surprise when considering how ostentatious his music has been in previous projects; take for comparison’s sake Macbeth, where it was all booms and deep thrusts to propel the narrative’s impending doom forward with gusto.
Riz Ahmed’s vast talents are also wasted here, playing a co-worker with good intentions, with barely a handful of lines; his scenes playing off of Mendelsohn’s cagey evasiveness work perfectly as an insight into perceiving the version of Ray invented post-Una. Mendelsohn inspires pathos in a reprehensible character, confusing yet intriguing the audience as to the true nature of his unresolved feelings towards Una, in a measured, subtle performance.
Where Una ultimately succeeds is in its nuanced depiction of Una and Ray’s ambiguous relationship, one built on unresolved childhood trauma and the turning of tables that sees power reversed, as well as the inescapable sense throughout the film that we are just waiting for the hammer to fall.