'Una': A Provocative Look at Disturbing Love Between a Man and a Girl

'Una,' starring Rooney Mara, handles its themes in ways both subtle and blunt

A scene from 'Una.'
Nicola Dove / Courtesy of United King Films

Movies based on stage plays, especially plays that unfold in a single location and involve a small number of characters, fall into two types: Some cling to the original structure, while others open it up to give the result a more “cinematic” essence (and there is nothing less cinematic than a movie about a few characters set in a single location, as demonstrated recently by Roman Polanski’s screen adaptations of the plays “Carnage” and “Venus in Fur”). I still remember the argument over Mike Nichols’ decision to open up his version of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and let George, Martha and their two guests out of the house where the play is set, even allowing them to visit a local bar; some claimed that Nichols ruined the claustrophobic feel of Edward Albee’s drama. Although the result was powerful, I still think Nichols’ choice was unnecessary.

“Una” is an interesting case in this context, if not a fully satisfying one. It is based on “Blackbird,” a play by Scottish playwright David Harrower, which was first performed at the Edinburgh Festival in 2005 before moving to the West End of London. The play received great acclaim and many prizes, and has been produced since then in numerous countries, including Israel. This is a rare case in which the playwright himself (who did the screenplay adaptation) and the director even chose to rename the work, as though to signal that they have taken liberties with the script and the movie should be considered a work in its own right.

“Una” is the first movie by Benedict Andrews, an acclaimed Australian theater director who has directed productions of Harrower’s play in different countries. Perhaps because it was his first film, Benedict presumably wanted to show that he could do more than simply transfer a play to the screen. As a rookie filmmaker, he may have wanted to stress and even enjoy the differences between film and theater. If so, then “Una” offers only a partial fulfillment of his goals.

“Blackbird” is one of those plays whose basic premise is openly provocative. I tend to suspect such plays (and movies) of being manipulative at heart, in a bid to create a media buzz. Harrower’s script has that dimension, though it is well-concealed beneath an exterior that avoids didacticism and does not judge the protagonists, leaving that task to the audience. Una, the main character (Rooney Mara in the movie), is a 28-year-old woman who is led, by a photograph in a trade magazine, to Ray (Ben Mendelsohn), a man 20 years her senior. She suprises him at the factory where he is a manager, and where his coworkers know him by the name Peter. Fifteen years earlier, when Una was 13 (12 in the play), she and Ray, a friend of her father’s who lived nearby, had a sexual and emotional relationship. Although Ray promised to marry her, he eventually left. When their relationship came to light, he was tried and sentenced to four years in prison.

The affair left both Una and Ray damaged. Una has come to confront Ray and to demand answers, especially to the question of why he abandoned her. She tries to come across as resolute, but her fragility shows through the bravado. Andrews chooses to open the movie with short scenes that show Una drinking too much and having casual sex. Ray, who is married (in the movie we meet his wife, played by Natasha Little), is angry and frightened by her sudden appearance in his life, at his workplace and before his colleagues, who are puzzled by the young woman’s visit and by Ray’s strange reaction to it. As it happens, she shows up on a day when he is supposed to fire some workers as part of the factory’s cost-cutting measures, a task he finds himself too upset to carry out. While the play unfolds at a single location inside the factory, Andrews’ movie wanders through the building, which is supposed to create a more cinematic effect; but the transitions between the different sites while Ray’s boss tries to find him seem forced, schematic enough that they emphasize the very theatrical shackles that Andrews is trying to throw off.

Neither “Blackbird” nor “Una” are works about the horrors of pedophilia, any more than that was the main theme of Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita.” The play and movie are about how those who love against all the rules are shattered by the experience. Harrower and Andrews, as noted above, do not judge Ray and Una – a position that may outrage some viewers – but they are clearly more sympathetic to Una than to Ray, who claims she was the only girl with whom he had a sexual relationship. (He repeatedly insists that he is not a pedophile.) Una attacks, Ray defends himself and perhaps even lies. One of the movie’s weaknesses is that this dynamic repeats itself without much variation, creating a certain monotony.

In addition to letting us meet additional characters beyond the main protagonists, “Una” diverges from “Blackbird” in two main ways. First, it jumps between the present and the past, showing how Una’s relationship with Ray developed (Una is played by Ruby Stokes in the flashbacks). Second, in the movie we also have Scott (Riz Ahmed), Ray’s friend and colleague and one of the people Ray is supposed to fire. In those scenes where we see Una and Ray separately, Scott tries to track Ray down and to understand who Una is, but the use to which Andrews puts his character seems weak and contrived.

To a large extent, what makes “Una” flawed is the director’s attempt to make the theatrical original seem more cinematic. His idea of what “cinematic” means is very rudimentary, and the movie is deeply theatrical despite his best efforts to disguise this. The theatrical quality is evident in how Andrews guides his two stars and situates them within the direction and design, and it becomes especially conspicuous in the climactic scenes, which include such physical elements as Una’s destruction of an office in the factory. Still, Rooney Mara and Ben Mendelsohn play their parts well; it may be a matter of my personal preferences when it comes to acting styles, but Mendelsohn, the more passive and reactive of the two characters, impressed me more than Rooney, whose performance I sometimes found tiring. 

The provocative boldness of the play and movie lies in the way they dare to explore the place of love in a relationship between a man and a child. Una claims that she never stopped loving Ray, and that she can’t break free of this love because it never found closure; and could 13-year-old Una have been the true love of Ray’s life? The movie’s handling of these questions is subtle in some places, and blunt in others, but the theme as a whole is hard to ignore and it has a gripping, disturbing effect. 

If I have one other complaint about “Una,” it is that the movie isn’t disturbing enough, because Andrews is so determined to avoid didacticism and so focused on making the story cinematic, which sometimes has a distracting effect. “Una” is therefore an unsatisfying film, but not an uninteresting one. Does it reveal Benedict Andrews to be a promising film director beyond his achievements in theater (and in opera)? For his first picture, it certainly attests to creative cinematic thinking, though this thinking is uneven and sometimes misguided. The question, then, remains open, along with all the other questions that “Una” raises, but does not resolve.