TIFF 2016: Benedict Andrews directs Rooney Mara and Ben Mendelsohn in a slow-burning drama
The driving hunger for retribution dissipates into something more complex and unsettling in Una. The screen version of Scottish playwright David Harrower's 2005 play Blackbird, adapted by Harrower himself, is an oppressive, slow-burning drama that loses something in translation but is carried on the shoulders of intense, committed performances from Rooney Mara and Ben Mendelsohn.
Una (Mara) was sexually assaulted by neighbour Ray (Mendelsohn) when she was just 13. He served a four-year prison sentence and both of them have been living with the consequences ever since. 15 years later, Una tracks Ray (now called Peter) to his workplace. As their confrontation unfolds, she seems more like a spurned lover than a victim facing her abuser. He claims to be a changed man and constantly asserts that his love for her was unique and not an indication of more general tendencies.
In flashbacks, the young Una (an impressive Ruby Stokes) is a mixture of impressionable romantic and precocious Lolita-esque temptress, whilst the besotted Ray seems genuine in his impossible dream of a future in which they could run away and be together forever. You never lose sight of his guilt as an adult but you are made aware that nothing was clear-cut.
Whether you take the characters at face value or not, the shifting seesaw of sympathies towards them is one of the strengths of the writing but there are some reservations, not least about the waste of Riz Ahmed in a thankless supporting role and about dialogue that often has a heightened quality. Shot in a manner that lends the piece a burnished, otherworldly quality, Una is given a cinematic feel by debut director Benedict Andrews but he can never completely conceal its theatrical roots or entirely resolve the troubling issues it raises.
Screening as part of the Toronto International Film Festival 2016. General release TBC.