Based on David Harrower’s 2005 hit play ‘Blackbird’, ‘Una’ has all the hallmarks of a prestige drama - acclaimed source material dealing with a controversial topic, a terrific cast, and a major theatre director making their feature film debut. It’s a piece of material director Benedict Andrews is also very familiar with, having directed the play himself in Berlin in 2005. Directing theatre is a very different beast to directing film though, and while Andrews’ talents are clear in his theatre work, many of the decisions in ‘Una’ betray a lack of understanding that occasionally borders on banality.
Una (Rooney Mara, 'Lion', 'The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo') has been searching for Ray (Ben Mendelsohn, 'Slow West', 'The Dark Knight Rises') for many years. When she was thirteen, Una had engaged in a sexual relationship with Ray, many decades her senior, but since the end of the relationship and his conviction as a sex offender, she hasn’t seen or heard from him. However, a picture in a magazine leads her to find him working in a factory, and she goes to confront him about what happened... just not in the way that Ray expects.
Harrower’s original play was set entirely in an office break room, with Una and Ray ripping apart each other and themselves, unpacking their complicated feelings for one another. For the film, Harrower and Andrews have expanded the scope of their interaction to the wider environment of the factory, but while this might seem like a logical decision considering the change of medium, it completely dissipates any tension that might have existed between them. This decision perfectly captures everything wrong with ‘Una’, and there are many, many things wrong with this film - that decisions are made regarding narrative, character and aesthetic that rob the material of its dramatic potential. By spreading the confrontation over multiple locations, it loses its rhythm, leaving ample dead space for the audience to grow increasingly frustrated. Andrews fills this dead space with endless artistic shots of the factory or of Mara’s face or body, interspersed with flashbacks to teenage Una that lend little weight to the narrative. Harrower also inserts a woefully underdeveloped subplot involving Ray and a series of redundancies at the factory that lends nothing to the main narrative, filling the film with pointless secondary characters that even the talented cast can’t make anything more of than cardboard cut-outs.
Andrews has clearly read up on the cinematic potential in visual metaphor and symbolism, and looked at lots of great photographs as source material, but this aesthetic eye means nothing without intention, consistency, rhythm or actual soul. ‘Una’ has moments of objective visual richness, but they’re so empty and pointless that you resent them, and even at 94 minutes, feels way too long. Whatever verbal sparing there was in the original play has been stripped back to obvious, exposition-filled dialogue that feels leaden and heavy, and as talented as Mara and Mendelsohn are, they simply cannot make the dialogue or their dynamic work.
The greatest problem with ‘Una’ though is its treatment of women and of victims of sexual assault. We've become more aware in recent years of the problems of the male gaze, of female experiences being inadequately explored by male directors. Some have been able to subvert or work against this, like Jean-Marc Vallée’s tremendous work on ‘Big Little Lies’, but Andrews shows that this is not something he’s skilled in or concerned about. Within minutes of us first meeting Mara as Una, we’re shown her in the shower in a state of nudity, unambiguously presenting a sexual assault victim as a sexualised object, and not for the first time in the film. Andrews presents her as a mysterious and desirable male fantasy, her brokenness as something to be aroused by instead of sympathised with. There’s no question that what makes Una a potentially fascinating character is the fact she still has feelings for Ray, but presenting her in such a manner in 2017 in the midst of important discussions about female representation on-screen feels out of touch and totally misguided. Una is also presented somewhat as the antagonist of the film, Harrower’s expanded story having her essentially stalk and harass Ray, especially in the moronic final 20 minutes. This could have been an interesting exploration of revenge, something akin to ‘Gone Girl’ (2014), but it isn’t handled in a way to suggest that, and adding to the many questionable morals of this film, Andrews’ sympathies seem to lie with Ray instead of Una, presenting him as the victim instead. The sexual, moral and gender politics of this film are incredibly problematic, and while Andrews may think he’s throwing provocations at his audience to consider (much as he does in his theatre work), they don’t seem like provocations here. In the end, Una is less a victim seeking answers than a hot, broken femme fatale returning to entice and arouse the men around her, using her sexual power over them for reasons that just aren’t clear or clever enough.
Una is less a victim seeking answers than a hot, broken femme fatale returning to entice and arouse the men around her, using her sexual power over them.
This may be the point, and Andrews and Harrower may be making some obscure comment about the complications around sexual assault victims and perpetrators, but ‘Una’ isn’t a strong enough piece of filmmaking to ask or justify those questions. Its aesthetics are empty, its screenplay is stretched to breaking point and its performances suffer accordingly. As a feature debut, ‘Una’ does not announce Benedict Andrews as a major filmmaking talent, and as an attempt at provocation and discussion, contributes nothing to wider conversations or ideas. What it is, in the end, is a dull, insipid and woefully misguided film, a problematic male fantasy on the female experience of sexual assault. Its audience and its central character deserve better.