film review: una

After seeing a picture of him in a trade magazine, Una (Rooney Mara) tracks down her old neighbor Ray (Ben Mendelsohn) at the warehouse where he works as a supervisor. He’s taken on a new name and looks visibly shaken to see her, for good reason. Fifteen years ago, when Una was only thirteen, they had a secret relationship which lasted three months and culminated in the pair attempting to run away to Europe. Ray spent some time in jail, but other than the new identity, it doesn’t seem as though much changed in his life. Una only wants to talk to him, except the history between them needs more than a conversation to find resolution.

Most of Una takes place in the warehouse, interspersed with scenes from her adolescence. It’s a detached, labyrinthine setting that reflects Una’s state of mind. Even as an adult she struggles to reconcile the truth of what happened with how it had made her feel at the time. She tells Ray without equivocation that what he did was abusive but occasionally talks about events as though they were a nasty breakup, rather than the exposure of a predator. Rooney Mara plays Una as the living embodiment of a broken bone that wasn’t set properly— healed, but maybe with a little less strength than meets the eye. Her performance never descends into cliché or exploitation and she commands attention opposite an equally laudable effort by Mendelsohn. His Ray could be any neighbor, friend, or father figure, possessed of a familial amiability lacking even a hint of sleaze. That he ever approaches a sympathetic figure, despite what we know to be true, is a testament to Mendelsohn’s restraint.

Rooney Mara and Ben Mendelsohn in Una

David Harrower’s script (based on his own play) provides subtle, yet unmistakable clues, about Ray’s true nature. Once some smaller lies and half-truths are unveiled, they call into question the answers he finally gives to Una’s biggest questions. The direction by Benedict Andrews also squarely empathizes with Una. She remains the narrator of her story; whenever Ray shares his side he must share the screen with Una, or else the camera cuts him out entirely to focus on her reaction instead. It’s a small but powerful, and welcome, choice. Also powerful is the disturbing ease with which Andrews uses the most innocuous sights to portend the horrific. A pile of folded clothes, a bustling public pool, and an unmade bed next to one that remains untouched elicit more squeamish revulsion than many horror films.

Una impressively allows for the existence of both Una and Ray’s recollections without ever stooping to the dangerous fallacy that they are equally deserving of deference or sympathy. It showcases a conversation and drive for closure that words alone could never provide, wisely opting not to shoehorn in an unrealistically tidy ending. Most importantly Una remembers, down to its title, where the focus in these stories belongs. We should all endeavor to do the same.


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