Una (2017 UK/Canada/USA)
Call me naive, but I didn’t see the end that eventually came in Benedict Andrews’ film Una, but come it did, and I was a bit shocked. Not shocked by the content, for its more implying than action, but what the ending specifically meant to the rest of the story, one focused on a 28-year-old woman named Una who 15 years prior, at the age of 13, had a sexual affair with her 40-year-old neighbor, Ray.
Una (Rooney Mara) has a sexual tryst in the bathroom of a club, walks home barefoot, showers, puts on a pretty dress, and drives to what I imagine an Amazon warehouse looks like. She walks around for a bit, then asks a man if he knows where Ray is. The man doesn’t know who Ray is, so she produces a picture of him, and he is now Peter, who is the man’s boss.
It spoils nothing to say the story is about Una confront Ray nee Peter about molesting her after a three-month grooming and then leaving her alone, and Mara does a lot of heavy lifting here.
Ray - I’ll just call him that from now on - is played in earnest by Ben Mendelsohn, who you know from a thousand different movies as a top-notch character actor. The challenge of such a role is making the audience feel sorry for Ray and how he turned his own life upside-down by what he insists was a one-time thing, and much of the runtime is spent with him explaining both how he loved Una and wanted to run away with her, and how conflicted he was at being in love with a 13-year-old girl. “I’m not one of those,” he keeps insisting.
And that’s the crux. Most rational adults will say that if you’ve slept with one person that falls into the forbidden fruit category you’ve only just begun, and that common sense and the ways in which writer David Harrower keep doubling-back and doubling-up on it are crucial to its effectiveness.
The film is based on Harrower’s stage play Blackbird, and the plot is almost identical. The film is set in the three-act structure I assume was with the play, and each act unloads pathos by the truckload, the conflicted emotions of Una who was in love with the man and remains at times confused, enraged, and gutted by his abandonment of her, the chilling line “I hate the life I’ve lived” summing her up nicely. Mara infuses her with a humanity bookended by the acts of a severely damaged human being - over the course of one day, she will have sex with three different men while confronting the man who molested her.
She manages to drag information out of Ray - information about his current life, whether or not he’s married, has children, what prison was like, why did he leave her, why did he do it, did he know what a pariah he’d made of her. When he asks her if she has a boyfriend, Mara’s action is such that it’s unclear if the answer meant “right now” or “ever.”
Unlike Nabokav’s Lolita or Stanley Kubrick’s film version of it, there is nothing darkly comic going on here - it is a sickening film, and at times Una raises the natural questions everyone watching must have, which boils down to this: why would a seemingly otherwise decent man take the flirtations of an innocent girl and suddenly begin grooming her for molestation and abduction, especially when by both of their remembrances there was nothing murderous about them.
Andrews direction is necessarily understated - most of the action takes place in the break room of the warehouse, and flashbacks accompanied by appropriately haunting music serve to remind us of the action that is being discussed. Ruby Stokes is perfectly cast as the young Una, not only because she looks a great deal like a young Rooney Mara, but because she embodies that thing that Humbert Humbert so breathlessly described in the early pages of Nabokav’s novel, nauseatingly defining what it is that attracts some men to girls of a certain age and development.
Una is now available for rent at Amazon - it’s not for the faint of heart and it’s certainly not for viewing by anyone under the age of 17, but it’s an excellent film.