There is no disguising the stage origins of Una, the first foray into the feature film realm for Australian theatre and opera director Benedict Andrews. This is a film where the characters and the relationship between them are everything and it is easy to see how this story could be contained to a stage. Whilst Andrews makes every effort to make things more cinematic, ultimately the narrative is not much more than a tension-filled conversation between the titular Una (Rooney Mara) and Ray (Ben Mendelsohn), a figure from her past who has served jail time as a result of events that took place 15 years earlier. Every movement and gesture is deliberate and it is to Williams’ considerable fortune that he has such polished performers in the leads, with both actors bringing ambiguity and intensity to their roles. Adapted for the screen by David Harrower from his own Tony-nominated play Blackbird, the film is never salacious in its exploration of the relationship between Ray and 13-year-old Una, who has struggled to find much happiness in the years since.
After an opening ruminative shot of the young Una (Ruby Stokes), the film flashes forward to Rooney’s adult version of the character engaged in an act of emotionless sex in a nightclub bathroom, staring blankly in the mirror as she is fucked from behind. Still living in her childhood bedroom, Una’s relationship with her widowed mother is confined to a few stilted conversations and it is obvious that, whilst both women remain affected by the course of events, they are unable to connect in any meaningful way. When Ray’s picture appears in the local newspaper, she sets off to track him down at the warehouse where he is now working, albeit with a new identity. What ensues is a complicated tangle between the pair, interspersed with bursts of memory-driven flashbacks in which we see Ray establish a rapport with his teenage neighbour. It isn’t long before the two take flight to a seaside town with plans to spend their lives together. There is no question about the nature of their relationship, but what transpires immediately after they have sex in a motel room is told from the perspectives of both characters and viewers are asked to consider which version of events is more credible. Believing Ray has abandoned her – an accusation he refutes in his telling – Una panics and sets off the events that lead to Ray’s trial and subsequent imprisonment. Since his release after serving four years, Ray has created a new life for himself and is working in a large warehouse facility which, aside from the flashbacks and a final scene at Ray’s house, is where all of the drama unfolds.
It is never clear what Una is hoping to achieve in reconnecting with Ray. Is she out for reconciliation or revenge? Is it just curiosity? Is it an admission or apology of some kind that she seeks? It is certainly Ray who has the most to lose and the film raises questions around whether conventional definitions of sexual abuse are too simplistic. Can Ray really be seen as a paedophile or simply somebody who allowed his emotions to cloud his judgment? Initially there is some satisfaction in seeing Ray’s domesticity smashed wide open by Una, leaving him defenceless and with little choice but to engage with her but, after a while, Una’s reasons for finding Ray become somewhat clouded and there is a subsequent shift in the dynamic between the pair and it is the ebb and flow of power throughout this film that makes it so engrossing. It is to Mendelsohn’s great credit that he somehow makes Ray seem somewhat less despicable than we might otherwise expect given what has transpired because Harrower and Andrews have delivered a much more objective take than you might typically see in a film dealing with such subject matter.
Any story that revolves around acts of sexual abuse, and particularly those involving children, are invariably a delicate balancing act to avoid being seen as exploitative and whilst some will watch this film and feel betrayed by the dynamic between Una and Ray, the filmmakers have attempted something rarely seen in stories of sexual abuse in telling the story from the perspective of the victim, rather than the perpetrator. Mara is remarkable as a lonely, damaged young woman and Mendelsohn is also outstanding as the manipulative Ray, while Riz Ahmed’s Scott is the only other character with significant screen time. This is a dialogue-driven film with a minimalist aesthetic that some will find hard to embrace, but Una is a compelling and highly relevant piece that raises a lot of questions without ever telling the audience what to think.