Before I start this review, I need to warn you that this film is about an adult woman’s attempt to confront the man who sexually abused her as a child. Please proceed with your own safety in mind.
“I don’t know anything about you, except you abused me,” Una, the title character of Benedict Andrews’s gloomy, sterile film, tells the man who groomed and molested her at age thirteen. On this point, she–and the film–never wavers. Una is not a he-said-she-said tale that wastes time deciding whether or not it’s about a romance gone bad or a terrible crime; it knows what it is and makes certain that the viewer knows, as well.
Adapted from the play Blackbird by David Harrower, Una follows its eponymous heroine (Rooney Mara) as she navigates her life fifteen years after attempting to run away with her adult neighbor and family friend, Ray (Ben Mendelsohn). Sexually promiscuous, eerily silent, and emotionally withdrawn, Mara’s Una at first seems unstable, perhaps dangerously so, as she tracks down Ray–now living his post-prison life as Peter, a suburban husband. Mendelsohn’s Ray lurches from denial to denial describing the hardships he’s had to endure since being sent to prison for his crime, but we’re never given the sense that even he believes he’s blameless.
In that way, Una achieves what Lolita could not; there is no room for ambiguity as to whether Una could consent to the relationship, despite desiring Ray’s attention. In the role of Una’s younger self, Ruby Stokes isn’t given much dialogue, but she uses the silence deftly, conveying the confused naivete of a girl who believes she’s ready to be a woman. At thirteen, Una was not a young Brooke Shields, made-up and precocious. Her cherubic face and skinny, ungainly limbs mark her out as very much a child, making Ray’s repeated assertion that he isn’t a pedophile all the more uncomfortable, and his insistence that he deeply, romantically loved the girl utterly disturbing.
Besides some brief flashes of an adult Una having sex, the only graphic details come from the unflinching dialogue and occasional stark, shocking visual. We’re thankfully not subjected to the sight of Ray raping young Una; instead, we’re given a lingering, silent shot of a crumpled pile of a little girl’s clothes and panties on the floor at the end of a bed. While present-day Una describes Ray exposing himself to her in a park, we see only a flashback of the trees surrounding them. These mundane scenes are made grotesque through the skill of Mara and Mendelsohn’s delicate, precise conversation.
Though most of the action takes place in the warehouse where Ray works, it isn’t a “bottle episode” type of movie. A barely-there subplot about a company merger feels as though it’s meant to up the stakes, but instead it becomes frustrating, pulling us away from the confrontation we’re more interested in. Riz Ahmed stands out as an innocent bystander drawn into Una’s endgame, while Tobias Menzies is largely wasted here, given little to do but stagger around in a rage, asking everyone where Peter has gone, to the point that it becomes unintentionally, annoyingly comical. But even Una‘s weak spots are stronger than most movies that have tried to tackle this subject.
The denouement is a small, but effective gut punch that I won’t spoil here, except to say that survivors of child sexual abuse may want to read the Wikipedia summary to be prepared. Una won’t satisfy viewers looking for orderly catharsis or justice tied up in a neat bow, but it is far more haunting–and a much better film–for abadoning those cheap tricks.