As Una begins it is difficult to know where we are, in location or in story. Fragmented scenes play before us of a young girl on a swing and then a twenty-something woman wandering aimlessly through a nightclub. Equally the location is hard to pin down, as we watch the twenty-something woman walk home barefoot after a seedy encounter in a bathroom stall at the nightclub, it clear she is in suburbia, but could be anywhere in England, America or even Australia. This vagueness and lack of clarity is a theme throughout the film, even when the story becomes more clear. Una is a hugely unsettling story from start to finish. There is no resolution and no apology made for this, it is unrelenting in its brutal portrayal of deviancy.
Una (Rooney Mara) is both the young girl on the swing and the adult woman in the nightclub, the disjointed flashbacks mirror her own fractured existence. Very quickly into the film we discover she was the victim of a paedophile when she just thirteen and after finding a photo of her abuser fifteen years later, she sets out to confront him. The film is adapted from a play called Blackbird by David Harrower and skillfully directed by Benedict Andrews. Much like a play, the film has very little build up and within ten minutes is straight into the main action of the story. In very few minutes it is established that Una’s life is at a standstill and has never moved on since she was preyed upon. She still lives at home in her childhood bedroom, still speaks to her mother like a difficult teenager and still holds all the hurt, anger and distrust that damaged her many years ago. She is in a kind of limbo that seems impossible to get out of. Her neighbour Ray (Ben Mendelsohn) was also her abuser, meeting initally at a family berbecue, Una was groomed into believing she was in some sort of relationship with Ray and they were going to run away to Europe to be together. Una was abandoned in a seaside town not long into their escape and still lives in that profound sense of abandonment as an adult. Ray was convicted and served prison time (a mere four years) for his offences and assumed a new identity in a distant town, however Una must live in the same skin with the same pain, unable to move on or heal in any way. It is hard to decipher what she intends to do when she gets in a car to drive to Ray’s workplace, but it is clear she is trying to break a cycle of sadness that has inhabited her.
Andrews is masterful in his depiciton of a difficult story. The spaces that the characters inhabit are very boxy and almost claustrophobic, much like a theatre stage, but this only adds to the tense and sinister nature of the whole film. Even when Una goes to the large warehouse that Ray now works in, the walls seems to slowly close in on them as they painfully dissect the course of their sordid pseudo relationship. Their meeting becomes more and more intense and intertwines with the flashbacks to paint a very disturbing picture. Emotions run riot as one minute they are calmly speaking and the next furniture is flying across the cold cafeteria setting. Amongst all this turmoil Ray is called into a difficult meeting to discuss redundancies with his staff. Perhaps this was a way of fostering sympathy for Ray’s character, however I feel this was unnecessary to the story and quite frankly insulting to Una’s character. Once again she is abandonded at her most vulnerable and left to feel like her pain and suffering is inconvenient.
Overall, Una is a worthwhile yet uncomfortable viewing experience. As the story unfolds further a palpable sense of anxiety is felt and by the end it still lingers, little is resolved and so many more perturbing questions are raised. The standout scene for me occurs very early on in the film. A young Una (Ruby Stokes) sits silent in front of a camera awaiting police questioning. Suddenly “Down by the Water” by PJ Harvey plays over the scene. Una shifts uncomfortably in her seat, eyes dart from the lens to whoever is behind it, she tucks her hair behind her ear and looks at her feet. Her teenage bashfulness and timid nature remains, but her innocence is long gone.
“Little fish, big fish, swimming in the water.
Come back here, man, gimme my daughter.
Little fish, big fish, swimming in the water.
Come back here, man, gimme my daughter.”
Una is on general release from Friday 1st September