starring Rooney Mara, Ben Mendelsohn, Riz Ahmed, Tara Fitzgerald
screenplay by David Harrower, based on his play "Blackbird"
directed by Benedict Andrews
by Walter Chaw Theatre director Benedict Andrews makes his feature-film debut with the best Patrick Marber stage adaptation that isn't from a Patrick Marber play, Una. (The play is actually David Harrower's "Blackbird", adapted for the screen by Harrower.) It's kind of a low bar, let's be honest. Una is about Una, who, as a 13-year-old child, is raped by Ray. But young Una (Ruby Stokes) thinks that she loves Ray (Ben Mendelsohn), and Ray, a sick fuck, is sure that he loves Una. This is Lolita told from the point-of-view of Controversial Playwright: Harrower stirs the shit and Andrews does his best to expand what's probably a one-room drama into a warren of warehouse offices, an apartment, a dinner party, and lots of flashbacks. The strategy appears to be a lot of walking around and then stopping to exchange twenty pages of gravid dialogue. The best things about Una (and they're fantastic) are Rooney Mara, who plays the title character as an adult, and Mendelsohn. Mara is growing on me, and if Mendelsohn has ever given a bad performance, I can't remember it. These two have a genuine fission in their interplay that makes it all feel dangerous. When Ray turns tender at the end, smoothing 28-year-old Una's hair and telling her she was the only 13-year-old he's ever been attracted to, there's a beat--maybe two--before you hear what he's saying.
The third player in this duet is one of Ray's warehouse guys, Scott (Riz Ahmed), who knows Ray as "Pete" and "my boss" and is entrusted with the care and handling of unhinged Una, who has tracked Ray down to confront him or...or...something. Ahmed is stupendous. The material? Severely underwritten for the add-ons and fluffers. Worse, there's a scene where Ray fucks his new wife (Natasha Little) that fades to black at the moment it starts to feel like it's going to turn non-consensual. If you're Cronenberg, you play this out as a marriage-bed fantasy that, in a bookend, turns violent and thus says something about the sex act and marriage and ideas of love and consent. If you're Andrews, you turn away slyly with the thought that you're suggesting something totally naughty but, you know, just not saying it. Say it. The dialogue taken from the play is knowingly provocative--smart enough, one supposes--and intellectually stagebound in an airless, privileged way that movies for classy people are supposed to be. Consider a scene in which the older Una and Ray come together again in a workplace locker room that evokes any number of high-school-set porn scenarios, and how the actors are completely committed but the script isn't.
Una is never as intuitive, as nasty, as Neil LaBute's misanthropic exercises. Una is less a portrait of damage than she is Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, refusing to be ignored here and using her evil sex abilities on Scott to figure out where Peter's having a dinner party, the better to crash it and cause a scene. There's a stepdaughter character sketched in there who sets the table for the Dr. Maplewood-from-Happiness moment where Ray pledges that he's only ever statutorily raped Una, that he doesn't even like little girls but Una was different. Meaning that Una would like us to consider that Ray maybe did love little Una--that maybe our definitions of "love" and "right" are dangerously blinkered. It's a slippery slope. The picture seems to not know where to go with the Ray and Una characters and so throws in draughts of ambiguity in lieu of making any choices. It all feels improvised--in the bad way. Worse, it feels like a betrayal of Mendelsohn, Mara, and Ahmed, who at least will look back on Una as one of those footnotes on a long list of accomplishments.