Ben Mendelsohn, Benedict Andrews, Blackbird, Child abuse, David Harrower, Drama, Review, Riz Ahmed, Rooney Mara, Theatrical adaptation
D: Benedict Andrews / 90m
Cast: Rooney Mara, Ben Mendelsohn, Riz Ahmed, Ruby Stokes, Tara Fitzgerald, Natasha Little, Tobias Menzies
Very occasionally a movie comes along that makes you question why it was made, or maybe what message it was trying to get across. Such a movie makes the viewer question the validity or the purpose of its existence. Sometimes it’s because the movie is lacking in several important areas, such as acting, or being competently directed. At other times it could be down to the script, or the way the movie has been shot; it could even be all four reasons at once. If it’s an adaptation of an existing novel or play or television series, or something similar, then sometimes it’s all about whether or not the movie is faithful to the original, or whether the adaptation works on its own merits. And sometimes it’s purely because the movie itself is just plain bad, on every level.
Una isn’t bad on every level, but it is a movie that makes the viewer question why they’re watching it, while they’re watching it. Adapted from the stage play, Blackbird by David Harrower, Una is about the titular character (Mara) and her ex-neighbour, Ray (Mendelsohn), who seduced her when she was thirteen. It’s about the consequences and the ramifications of that illicit, and illegal, relationship, and the ways that it has affected both characters in the fifteen years since. Una has remained single, and still lives in her childhood home with her mother (Fitzgerald). We learn little about her except that she has sex with men she doesn’t know in night clubs, and that her relationship with her mother is fragile, partly because her mother isn’t well, and partly because of what happened fifteen years ago. One day she skips work and heads to a large warehouse where she asks to see Ray. Ray, it turns out, is now called Pete, and is a manager at the warehouse. He steers Una into a break room, and clearly unnerved by her arrival, asks her what she wants.
What Una wants, we discover, is very simple: she wants to know why he left her all those years ago, when they were on the verge of eloping to Europe. The answer proves not to be as clear-cut as we, or Una, might expect, but before we learn what that answer is, Ray’s attendance at a meeting leads to uproar amongst the workforce, and Ray having to hide from everyone. He and Una stay one step ahead of everyone else, including Scott (Ahmed), one of Ray’s co-workers, and senior management honcho, Mark (Menzies). As Ray waits for everyone to leave, he and Una talk about their relationship, what it meant for both of them at the time, and what it means for them now. Ray served four years in jail, and has since gotten married, and found a stable way of living his life. Una has no such stability, only the same house she’s lived in her whole life, and in a neighbourhood where everyone knows her and knows what happened to her.
What follows should be absorbing and fascinating at the same time, as both Una and Ray reflect on events from their past, and the feelings they each had at the time. Inevitably, it takes their combined memories to provide the truth of what happened at the end for both of them; whether this will be enough for Una is a different matter. Suffice it to say, it isn’t, and the movie insists on making the same points in slightly different ways, until it heads off into the night with no clearer idea of where it’s going than Una has of what she’s going to do next. What she does do next depends entirely on the kindness of Scott, and leads to a contrived ending that takes the movie out of the realm of psychological drama and into the realm of unvarnished melodrama. But while the last third of the movie is unsatisfying and unrewarding, and relies on the good will of Harrower’s screenplay to move its characters from Point A to Point B, the cracks in said screenplay start appearing much earlier on.
Whatever the merits of the stage production (and it did win the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play in 2007), this new screen adaptation somehow manages to highlight a number of faults with the overall scenario that perhaps aren’t as noticeable under the proscenium arch. The reason for Una being at the warehouse, ostensibly to ask Ray why he left her, lacks conviction precisely because of the period of time that has elapsed. Harrower’s script never seeks to answer the question why this is still so important to her. Does she want to pick up where they left off? Does she still love Ray? Is her visit less about slaying the demons from her past, and more about breathing new life into them? These questions remain unexplored as the movie clatters along spewing out platitudes and clichés on both sides, with Ray bemoaning his time in prison, and Una blaming her father’s death on Ray’s predatory sexual behaviour. It also tries to show Una as being complicit in their affair, as if this is some kind of mitigating circumstance for what happened. The aim here may have been to make the issue more complex, but a paedophile is a paedophile, and what happened remains inexcusable.
Alas, very little of what is brought up is relatable or convincing, and with Una’s motives remaining obscure and possibly ill-considered throughout, the movie struggles to make us care what happened to her (which is concerning in itself). Mara gives a very good performance as the emotionally disturbed Una, but remains a figure we can’t relate to very well. Mendelsohn, however, is better served by the script, and makes Ray an untrustworthy character from the start. He lies to everyone, and probably about everything, and he’s good at it. Mendelsohn makes Ray self-serving and arrogant, and he rarely says anything important without thinking about it first. Ray may now be called Pete, and he may have a new life, but he’s still Ray, and with all that that entails. In bringing Una to the screen, theatre director Andrews makes his feature debut, but rarely seems comfortable in exploring the medium effectively. Within the warehouse, its crisp, clean lines and polished surfaces act as a stringent counterpoint to the raw emotions being mauled over in the break room (and a store cupboard and the ladies’ – of course), while the ending, which seems designed to leave the audience feeling appalled and shocked, plays out awkwardly and with scant regard for its backdrop.
Rating: 6/10 – a psychological drama that’s been given an arthouse makeover by its director, Una looks and feels austere, and lacks the passion to be truly effective as a movie about the lingering effects of child abuse; Mara and Mendelsohn make a good pairing but are unable to compensate for the wayward structure imposed on the material, and the script’s attempts at complexity inhibit the material even further, making it feel sterile rather than impassioned.