In Una, the powerful screen adaptation of David Harrower’s play “Blackbird” about the sexual abuse of a thirteen-year-old girl, Australian director Benedict Andrews does what has become increasingly uncommon in modern cinema — he makes us think. While it may be uncomfortable to look outside of the reassuring categories of victim and victimizer, Andrews asks us to look at his characters not as symbols but as damaged human beings who are seeking to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives and re-mold them into a coherent and functioning whole.
Rooney Mara (“Song to Song”) is impeccable as Una, a 28-year-old woman who still has confused feelings about Ray (Ben Mendelsohn, “Slow West”), the neighbor she had an affair with when she was thirteen, but who abandoned her after promising to take her away with him. Written by David Harrower and backed by an effective score by Jed Kurzel (“Alien: Covenant”), the film does not attempt to justify Ray’s actions, making it clear that Una was clearly below the age of consent and that Ray should have known that what he was doing was wrong.
In numerous inter-cutting flashbacks, Andrews shows the events that led us to the present day. Una opens as the teenage Una is sitting quietly under a tree near her home. As remarkably performed by newcomer Ruby Stokes, Una is a bright and articulate teenager who genuinely believes she is in love with Ray, a neighbor and friend of her father. The sexual act is not shown, only the emotional consequences of the thwarted three-month relationship that leaves Una with unanswered questions. The somber atmosphere is suddenly broken with the disorienting thump of rock music amidst a sea of strobe lights as the older Una wends her way through a crowded sleazy nightclub.
When she has rough sex in the bathroom with her face pressed against the bathroom mirror, we sense her rootlessness and troubled life. When she discovers Ray’s picture in a trade magazine, she decides to confront him at the warehouse where he is a mid-level manager. Other than some form of closure, it is unclear exactly what she expects from the meeting. When they finally meet and immediately recognize each other, Ray, who is now married and has changed his name to Pete, has no desire to relive the past, a history that has been hidden from his family and co-workers. He tells her that he has done his time and wants to be left alone. “This is my life. I had to fight for this!” he exclaims.
Una responds with barely concealed rage, telling him that her wound is one that will never heal and that he has only lost four years while she has had to pay dearly during the last fifteen years. Under Andrews’ direction, Ray is sympathetic, however, and is particularly compelling in pushing back against her accusations, making it clear that he was never one of “them,” though, to his fellow inmates in prison where he served four years for statutory rape, it was apparently too subtle a distinction. To further the chaotic scene, some employees are being laid off and Ray is called on to deliver some clichés about going onward and upward, but is too emotionally upset to continue.
Uncomfortable around his fellow employees, Ray and Una move around the cavernous building trying to find a hiding place to continue their painful recollections and recriminations which they do with increasing intensity. Their conversation runs the gamut from violent antagonism to tenderness. At one point, it is unclear if Una wants to kill him or make love to him. One of those looking for Ray is his foreman, Scott (Riz Ahmed, “Jason Bourne”) who is used by Una afterwards to insinuate herself into Ray’s home life.
As the focus is evenly balanced between Ray and Una, we are left floating in a sea of ambiguity which can only be resolved by the perspective of the viewer. Although Ray claims that he does not “do these things” on a regular basis, and that he loved Una for who she was and never considered her as a “target,” the fact that the film shows a scene of Ray’s stepdaughter going into his bedroom (innocently looking enough) perhaps provides a hint that his denials should be taken with a grain of salt.
Una is a complex drama that will not appeal to everyone but whose strength does not lie in its cultural or political agenda but in its art. Una explores, in Israeli author Aharon Applefeld’s words, “the darkest places of human behavior to show that even there . . . humanity and love can overcome cruelty and brutality.” For Una, however, there is no escape from the disappointment and humiliation of a young child and there can be no closure. The assault on innocence and the assault on childhood are one and can only be transformed by a world touched by the possibility of grace.