When she was 13, Una (Rooney Mara) had a sexual relationship with an older man, Ray (Ben Mendelsohn), writes Natalie Stendall.
He was her father’s friend and the family’s neighbour. Many years later, Una confronts Ray at his workplace. Their emotionally charged conversation draws us into Una’s confusing and tumultuous world, where the whole truth is always out of reach.
The writing from David Harrower, based on his own play Blackbird, doesn’t seamlessly translate from the stage. The film is a near chamber drama, principally set at Ray’s place of work.
Yet debut film director Benedict Andrews, runs out of convincing ways to shoot this warehouse setting. A succession of empty rooms, clinical, white corridors and glass walls become less plausible the longer we stay there. Rather than heaping up the pressure and tension by their proximity to his secret crime, Ray’s colleagues are curiously absent.
The subplot - Ray’s collusion in the firm’s redundancy plan - is so thin as to be virtually irrelevant.
Instead, the sparse, stark setting forces our attention on the first rate performances and the somewhat heavy-handed dialogue. Particularly in the film’s early sequences, there’s far too much telling and surprisingly little showing.
But if you think a stagnant setting and some laboured exposition makes Una sound like a ham-fisted drama, you’d be wrong.
A series of revelations - some subtle, some shocking - quickly shake off any idea of Una as simple, static or sedate. The 90 minute confrontation works both as an emotionally fraught drama and as a microcosm of child grooming. Just when we think we might have Ray all figured out, Harrower and Andrews throw us a curve ball. That the complexity of the plot’s intricate twists drag us into Una’s own sense of uncertainty is genius. Was Ray in love or is he an abuser? Can he be both?
Andrews creates moments of brilliance here cutting between flashbacks and the present day, capturing these ambiguous emotions in intriguing close-up. While the sexual acts remain off camera, Andrews directs us to moments of emotional intimacy between Ray and the teenage Una. As Una revisits these through an adult lens - and a lifetime of authority figures telling her what to think - she slides into deeper turmoil.
Even when the dialogue flounders, Una is held together by its two charismatic lead performances that pack each and every moment with emotional intensity. Mendelsohn’s Ray appears simultaneously honest and opaque, while Mara’s Una unleashes a lifetime of confusion in fits of ferocity and grief. Ray might be quick to distance himself from paedophiles, but Andrews wisely allows us to make up our own minds. Una’s ending is powerful in its gaping uncertainty.
Una is now showing in selected cinemas nationwide. Una is also available on selected streaming services, the same time as cinemas.