Una: A brave adaptation that sparks and sizzles on screen
by Andrew Espe
- Benedict Andrews' feature debut and adaptation of David Harrower's play, Blackbird, is a stunning and harrowing study of anger, memory, and love
Tackling the idea of sexual assault on film is no easy feat - but filmmaker Benedict Andrews pulls it off with the tense and heartbreaking Una [+see also:
film profile], screened in the main competition at the 60th BFI London Film Festival. Adapted for the screen by David Harrower from his own play that Andrews has actually directed onstage in Berlin, Una tells the story of the titular character (Rooney Mara) on her quest to seek answers from her past. A young woman still living at home with her mother, Una is a damaged person who decides to confront a man she once knew long ago. This man is Ray (now Peter, after a legal name change), who works in a warehouse and has every intention of moving forward in his life - until Una visits him at work. It's revealed that Ray (Ben Mendelsohn) sexually abused Una at the age of 13 and he immediately recognises the adult version when she shows up. Swiftly taking her aside for a more private and personal conversation, Ray wants as many answers from Una showing up as much as she wants to dig into their relationship. What transpires over the next hour and a half is a deep dive into their pasts, with questions regarding the abuse, attraction, memory, and, most shockingly, love, being shot back and forth.
Adapting a play from stage to screen has historically proven to be difficult and tricky for many - the risk is that the finished product looks like someone merely filmed a production. However, Una turns out to be the best play adaptation on film since John Cameron Mitchell's Rabbit Hole in 2010. It's a stark and purely cinematic work, one that allows Andrews to fuse his familiarity with the source material with his symphony of filmic experts - everything from Nick Fenton's visceral editing, to Jed Kurzel's haunting score make this a film that works on every level. The audience wants to hate Ray for what he did to Una, but Mendelsohn is such a gifted and meticulous actor that he addresses every layer of the character, ranging from surprise to regret. He infuses Ray with an empathy that's surprisingly welcome and sensible, yet has no interest in making the character remotely likable. Ray has hidden from his past and maintained as much order as he could until Una re-enters his life. Mara, on the other hand, gives perhaps her best performance to date. This is a deeply complicated character dealing with a myriad of dark emotions, and Mara relishes in exposing her mentality and feelings in a revelatory performance. She jumps from anger and sadness, to hope and confusion in a single glance, and the two actors have tremendous and electric chemistry together.
Una is not merely an acting showcase, but also a bold piece of filmmaking that feels like an encounter intruded with a flood of indispensable memories. Andrews has perfect timing in cutting back and forth between Ray and Una's past (partially anchored by Ruby Stokes' turn as the vulnerable young Una) and the present meeting, creating an experience that's as dynamic as it is gut-wrenching to watch. Filmmakers should take a page out of Una's book in future - it has been a while since a film has not only achieved being a solid screen adaptation, but also leaving an indelible, personal impression as a piece of uncompromising, dark, and gripping cinema.
Our 60th BFI London Film Festival coverage is run in collaboration with the UK National Film and Television School's MA in Film Studies, Programming and Curation.