Una is the kind of film that leaves you feeling strangled, gripped by its story even if it’s about difficult and abhorrent people, and it has a lot going for it despite being about the very typical topic of ‘human nature’. An indie gem with powerhouse performances that makes the theatrical cinematic. Spoilers to follow.
Adapted by David Harrower from his own play, Blackbird, Una tells the story of a young woman confronting an older man who sexually abused her in the past. I’ve not read or seen the play, but I could see how this film had its roots in theatre. It was a treat to see how it could be conceptualised for the larger scope of film, and generally, it was quite successful.
Starting with its most run-of-the-mill aspects, the cinematography and set design are quite expected of a film like this. There’s nothing incredibly groundbreaking about the slow zoom-in that opens the film, and the languid pace that most of the story is told in. The setting looks decidedly normal, if washed out and just off enough to be a little unnerving. The movie importantly uses these techniques to full effect; eventually even the cinematography blossoms into something more. Every shot screams ‘artsy fartsy’ but they are all so beautiful to look at. Coupled with the minimal sound design and Jed Kurzel’s deliberate score, it creates an atmosphere of suffocation. This is expertly paralleled with the film’s narrative events, as both protagonists are trapped in their own ways (one more justifiably than the other).
Story-wise, the film is very difficult to ‘enjoy’. This is one of those movies where you can’t say you ‘love’ it because it makes you feel good. I doubt we’re even supposed to revel in the discomfort, but the film definitely takes us where we need to go with it. It’d be so easy to dismiss either protagonists’ arguments in two-dimensional ways. There are moments in which you find yourself feeling sympathy for either party, no matter how much that disgusts you or makes you think, in hindsight, that you’re just not a critical thinker towards the social issues the film highlights. Whenever I found myself wavering because Ben Mendelsohn is that good at being a manipulative person onscreen, I definitely had to stop myself. And what I love about Rooney Mara’s Una is that she herself is absolutely conflicted – not because she should be or it validates my own shaky resolve – but because that’s part of the film’s humanity. Especially when taking the purposely alienating technical aspects of the movie into consideration, it creates a delicate, if frenetic, relationship between the audience and the text.
Mara’s performance as the adult Una and Ruby Stokes as her pre-teen counterpart are the film’s anchors. Speaking specifically of Mara, she definitely embodies that kind of fragile-yet-uncontrollable dichotomy the most – and I mean, the film is called UNA. It’s about her, and it’s about giving her some kind of justice. The audience can see what’s going on and vindicate her, even if Ray gets to hide behind a new name for some time, touting himself as a real stand-up guy in the context of the narrative. Mara’s always been one for internalised acting, choosing to let her body language do the talking, and she does it in spades here. Her eyes are electrifying, with many ridiculously balanced close-ups on her face proving that very point. She carries a mysterious energy about her, which is perfect for the character of Una. This is one of my favourite performances of hers. I can barely imagine anybody else playing her (although Michelle Williams, who has done the play version, would definitely make the cut).
That’s not to say Mendelsohn is far behind, because I personally think casting him was a genius choice too. I’ve barely seen him play anybody fully likeable, but this is where he shines – in the grey areas, being charming and convincing when we logically know that his character is truly awful. Here, he appears so unimposing in that blue flannel shirt and boring haircut, and never even looked particularly threatening to begin with. But like Mara, he has a vibe about him that screams volatility. Something about Mendelsohn is as comforting as it is dangerous, and he makes audiences feel suitably squirmy yet oddly intrigued by Ray. It is utterly unsettling.
For me, Una is definitely a performance piece bolstered by good production. I wish I saw this film in 2016 and could say that these two are the performances that saved the year from being written off as mostly unmemorable. I don’t think I was as affected by many movies released last year as I was with this one; it gave me so much more than I bargained for. It even lingers – certain shots that frame these characters as vulnerable or powerful have stayed in the back of my mind and will be there for a while. I wasn’t expecting ‘easily forgettable’, but nothing as gripping and unrelenting as this.