Rooney Mara, Ben Mendelsohn
FilmInk rates movies out of $20 — the score indicates the amount we believe a ticket to the movie to be worth
…each frame of this film is so stripped back and so powerful that it almost wouldn’t need dialogue to be compelling.
Telling any tale based on acts of sexual abuse, especially those involving children, is like walking the world’s thinnest tightrope. It’s easy to stumble. And more often than not, it will be extremely polarising. With all that on its shoulders, UNA dives, unflinchingly, into the story of Una (Rooney Mara) a young, tormented woman who tracks down Ray (Ben Mendelsohn), who has changed his name to Peter and lives a new life, to confront their tortured past.
When watching UNA, what hits you before the performances or the story is the superb work by Australian expat director Benedict Andrews (in his directorial debut after an illustrious career in theatre) and cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis (The Lobster) as each frame of this film is so stripped back and so powerful that it almost wouldn’t need dialogue to be compelling. The minimalism and dreamlike quality of the visuals are reminiscent of Sven Nykvist’s most fruitful collaborations with Ingmar Bergman. These images are at times languid and serene and others jarring and horrific (often powered by a wealth of subtext) and this duo knows exactly when to employ each.
A film with this kind of subject matter would never work if the cast was not pitch-perfect and the two leads bring their A-game to this project. Rooney Mara is a tour-de-force, ranging from emotional desolation, to ecstasy, to laughter and back all within the same scene, and yet she is always restrained and raw. Her most inner wants bubble beneath the surface, something she can convey with as simple a gesture as a momentary eye twitch; blink and you’ll miss it.
Ben Mendelson is also brilliant as the manipulative Ray, spinning so many disparate truths, as to keep his conscience afloat, that not even he seems to know the real truth anymore.
There is an inherent satisfaction in seeing Ray’s docile lifestyle smashed wide open by Una, leaving him as defenceless as he left her. It’s not too often you get to see the subjects of sexual abuse given agency and their own voices, but once Una’s real reasons for finding Ray become apparent the film takes a turn for the worst. Una, once a dominant and empowered victim of sexual abuse, becomes desperate and somehow passive towards Ray’s choices.
The ebb and flow of power throughout this film is part of its brilliant dynamic. But, without giving away the end, Ray and Una’s final encounter plays counter-intuitive to where the film was leading us till this point and compounds the realisation that Una really didn’t know what she wanted all along. Maybe that speaks an emotional truth to survivors of abuse, but in film form, it just feels like we’re cheated out of the ending.
Some people will watch this movie and feel betrayed by the dynamic between Una and Ray and, considering the subjectivity of the subject matter, they probably have every right to. For some, this film will likely be abhorred (such is the nature of this subject matter), but David Harrower’s script (based on his own play Blackbird) attempts something people rarely do: to tell a story of sexual violence from the victim’s perspective and not from the perpetrator, and that is well worth the praise.