Ray (Ben Mendelsohn) runs a British manufacturing plant; he’s also a pedophile who seduced a neighbor, named Una, when he was 40 and she was only 13. When the now-adult young woman (an emotionally raw Rooney Mara) pays the older man a surprise visit at his workplace, there are 15 years of silence and recrimination between them. Behind the glass walls of Ray’s office, the two stalk each other like caged animals. “I’m not like one of those people,” he says, mentioning that he did four years in jail for his criminal behavior, changed his name and married a woman (Natasha Little) who knows nothing of his past. Ray also insists was a one-shot thing. Is he lying to her – or to himself? Una, at least, has her memories, as we see her younger self (searingly played by Ruby Stokes) caught in the web of an adult predator’s deceit. To watch this child fall under the spell of a family friend who sexualizes her in the name of love and offers her protection is disturbing to the Nth degree, as it’s meant to be.
Una is a film of seismic shocks built to make an audience squirm. Mission accomplished. The source material is Blackbird, an acclaimed drama by Scottish playwright David Harrower that a career-peak Jeff Daniels played twice on the New York stage – with Alison Pill in 2007 and Michelle Williams in 2016. It was a theatrical hothouse, with just two combatants going at each other in bruising psychological warfare. The movie, directed by Australian theater wiz Benedict Andrews with a screenplay by Harrower himself, opens up the play and simultaneously dilutes it to reveal the world outside through flashbacks and present-day encounters. Now, the duo are no longer alone, either: Ray has a boss (Outlander‘s Tobias Menzies) and a foreman friend (The Night Of‘s Riz Ahmed) who may or may not be on the list of employees about to be laid off. Neither actor, alas, are given much to play.
Mara lets us see the urge in Una to blow Ray’s life apart, just as he did hers. She uses sex to get at him, but when he’s impotent with her, she asks – “Am I too old for you now?” – a question that cuts to the core of an act that damaged two lives but only truly destroyed one of them. On stage, past and present do battle in searing monologues. On screen, in images that make flesh of memory, the power dissipates. Mara and Mendelsohn prowl through the maze with coiled intensity. But Andrews has directed himself into a corner, defusing the strength of Harrower’s dialogue to draw blood. “What could I have possibly given you that wasn’t my body?” Una asks Ray, who insists she always told him she was so mature for her age. “That’s what all kids say,” she counters, and her words hang in the air in echoing accusation.
That those words are now interrupted by jangly editing and characters running from place to place shows a commendable ambition to turn theater into cinema. But in the case of Una, the play’s the thing, with the stage production coming at you in a rush that doesn’t allow the characters or the audience to take a breath. In this personal hell of Harrower’s creation, there is no exit. The movie, however, keeps opening the door and letting the air in.