Adaptations from the stage to the screen are always tricky. No matter how solid a screenplay can be and while the use of film offers more ways to present its subjects, some elements in a play have trouble being translated in film. Some scenes might lose their emotional impact, characters might be unfocused, or the entire development of the story may fall askew. And that’s even before trying to navigate a story about a victim of a child molester confronting her predator after years of emotional scarring.
Una is an adaptation of David Harrower’s 2005 play Blackbird, which had a run on Broadway last year with Michelle Williams and Jeff Daniels. Una’s onscreen duo is Rooney Mara and Ben Mendelsohn, the former being the title character: a sullen party girl in the U.K. who goes to a local hardware store one day looking for the owner. The latter is said owner of the store, Pete, a happily married man with a successful business. But when Una shows up and knows his real name, Ray, the two start a quarrel over why Una is there and if Ray has truly absolved himself of his sins.
This is the feature-film debut for director Benedict Andrews, though he has a stacked resume of directing theater including Una’s source material in Berlin in 2005. With that prior experience, Andrews understands to put the audience right in the eye of the storm. Una is like a bottle episode of a TV drama with our two leads mostly trapped in the confines of the warehouse break room throwing nothing but raw emotion at each other. Andrews seemingly makes whatever small space Una and Ray are talking in shrink by the minute thanks to Harrower’s script that doesn’t let up on any possible dark detail of the story. The only time Una becomes even remotely “fancy” is during the flashback segments, shot with accentuated colors like a sundrenched daydream by cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis (The Lobster), that provide backstory on what happened between Una and Ray. The movie wisely doesn’t show the inciting incident, but rather alludes to it and shows the specific impact it had on Una.
With its minimal filmmaking frills, Una relies heavily on its actors that come out swinging. Rooney Mara is in top form, so restrained throughout the movie yet furious and almost cunning in her revenge against her monster. Even when Mara finally blows up (which is built-up in the movie and is not even its climax) it’s a whirling dervish of raw rage that consumes everything in its path. And then, miraculously, she brings it all back down and keeps going. Taking all of this brutal assault is Ben Mendelsohn, who plays with how much sympathy the audience should be giving him. He doesn’t see himself as an outright monster and is so dead-set on this being “one mistake” it’s an act of pathetic desperation in how long he tries to convince himself of that. Even with a collection of supporting players (including Riz Ahmed, who is nice but mostly pointless in the movie), the movie stays with its stage play roots by staying with its dynamite leads.
Una is a thrilling, miniaturized cat-and-mouse game that stands almost extra pertinent in today’s discussions. With talks of numerous sexual allegations in Hollywood now running rampant, Una’s story of a victim’s wounds and an abuser’s escape looks like a cautionary tale. A nightmare of a situation for both parties in the past and present of the situation. There’s no ambiguity in Una’s message, nor did there need to be.