Review: Una

As a 13 year-old, the title character had her innocence taken away by a much older man named Ray (Ben Mendelsohn). They planned to run away together, but when Ray walked out one night, Una worried that she’d been abandoned and was eventually found by the police and returned home. An arrest and court proceeding followed, with Ray sentenced to four years prison. Years later, the adult Una (now played by Rooney Mara) has never gotten over the experience, still lives with her mother (Tara Fitzgerald) and still harbours very confused and conflicted feelings towards her abuser. Ray has served jail time, moved on, changed his name, and remarried. He now works at a big manufacturing plant. Una sees his name and photograph in a newspaper, and decides to show up at the warehouse he works at. Needless to say, Ray is most definitely not pleased to see his dirty little secret from the past resurface.

You’d think stories about paedophilia wouldn’t lend themselves much to nuance, yet this 2017 big-screen version of a stage play does indeed find some room for subtlety and nuance inside a very dark and uncomfortable subject. Directed by debuting film director Benedict Andrews and scripted by playwright David Harrower himself, it’s an interesting, if poorly lit film that ultimately falls just short of being truly satisfactory. Honestly, would it have killed cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis (“Dogtooth”, “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”) to turn on a damn light every once in a while?

Like a lot of stage play adaptations, it’s very stagey and boxed-in despite most of it taking place in quite a large warehouse. Still, I did like the little bits of nuance Harrower affords the two main characters, whilst still ultimately not really excusing the Ben Mendelsohn character. It’s interesting that he gets off quite lightly legally and not being put on the sex offender’s register due to the technicality of Rooney Mara being old enough by a matter of mere months. He even has a defence for his actions and claims to not be a child molester. Yet, he was still found guilty and flashbacks do suggest a grooming process. I still find it all a bit uneasy, but the film deserves credit for mostly doing a good job. It gets a good score from me for the journey, even if the destination is a bit WTF, seemingly not caring to form an opinion on the Mendelsohn character definitively one way or another. There’s not much sympathy nor an excuse offered for the character, but there’s not much else of a statement either, from my point of view. I think really, it’s just a matter of the film ending a few seconds shorter than it should have. Still, for the most part this really does work well on thematic and character levels, and the performances by Ben Mendelsohn and particularly a terrific Rooney Mara make this one worthwhile, even if you don’t come away from it quite as satisfied from a story/plot level as you might like.

Mara is absolutely devastating and instantly credible as a clearly broken and damaged young woman full of hurt, confusion, and conflicting feelings. Mendelsohn is a pitch-perfect human ‘monster’, who isn’t as innocent as he wants everyone to believe, and pretty much aware of it too. Not only did this guy take away a girl’s innocence, he pretty much got up and walked out on her straight after, leaving her to pick up the pieces of her life. Yes, he offers an explanation for that, but it actually doesn’t change a damn thing nor excuse him. In fact, the fascinating thing about the way the story is told is that he could still be lying about his version of events in order to pick up where he left off grooming her, now as an adult. He certainly tells other lies during the course of the film. The fact that the film holds him to account for much of its length makes that rather ‘make up your own mind’ ending all the more disappointing. I don’t need to be spoon fed, but honestly, would it have hurt for the film to have run a few extra moments longer?

Well-acted, thematically interesting, very dark drama that works quite well overall. However, a slightly underwhelming conclusion and poor lighting do make this one a softer recommendation than it could’ve had. A shame, but it’s still worth seeing.

Rating: B-


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