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Movie Review: Una

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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 Sexually promiscuous, eerily silent, and emotionally withdrawn, Mara’s Una at first seems unstable, perhaps dangerously so, as she tracks down Ray–now living his post-prison life as Peter, a suburban husband.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.

Una opens in the U.S. this Friday, October 6th.

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  1. R

    I hate that you compare this to Lolita. I don’t know where or how anyone got the idea Lolita ever consented to anything or that she was anything less than a victim. I went into that book having read all the interpretations that it was somehow a love story and came away disgusted with anyone who ever read it and took that away from it. Because it was very clearly a story of a child molester and his victim.

    October 5, 2017
    • JennyTrout

      I’ve written about that aspect of Lolita in the past (during 50 Shades, I think) and the issues with how it’s misread. The book itself wasn’t the problem so much as the cultural reception of it. I don’t think we’re even now at a point where that book could be released and we could trust every reader understand that Humbert is an unreliable narrator. I think we have to reach a point where we don’t automatically excuse the abuser and vilify the victim before a book like Lolita isn’t hijacked the way it has been.

      October 5, 2017
    • Jamie

      I think she only brought it up because Lolita is so often misinterpreted. She is saying that there is no possible way to misinterpret this movie in the same way that so many people have misinterpreted Lolita.

      October 5, 2017
    • Nabokov assumed his readers would pick up on the obvious unreliable narration and HH’s obliviousness. But sadly, there are people who legitimately think that Dolores Haze was a vile seductress.

      Just now thinking about this, though: even if Dolly hypothetically were a hyper sexual kid and actively trying to seduce HH, he’s still explicitly a pedophile who leers at children in the park and selects his prostitutes based on how young they look. He still considers knocking Dolly up so that he can have another sex child once she gets too old. I get that people misread LOLITA all the time, but it’s baffling that so many people think HH isn’t a shit person, even if they do misread Dolores as a consenting participant.


      October 5, 2017
      • Neurite

        Amen to that.

        Of course, I am also baffled how people could possibly misread Dolores as a willing participant/seductress when even Humbert, the unreliable narrator, describes her locking herself in a bathroom for a long time and screaming at him when he tries to touch her after the first time he rapes her; crying herself to sleep literally every night; trying to squirrel away money to try and run away (which he then steals from her); and much, much more.

        But yeah, apparently people take things like “she had a crush on him at first and scribbled his initials on a poster” (like, you know, a *child* might) and “she actually initiated things the first time they had sex” (a, hellooo unreliable narrator, b, she was heavily drugged and tricked into sharing a bed with him and described what she was doing as “a trick another kid had taught her at camp” – i.e., she’d been abused before, and c, they didn’t “have sex,” he *raped her* ugh ugh) as somehow invalidating everything else.

        But Humbert? Who explicitly describes his target age range as 9-13 years? Who talks at length about his extensive history of pedophilia long before he ever met Dolores? Yeah. I guess it’s all his oh-so-believable protestations about how he twuwy wuvs her and it pains his poor heart so? (Right before he sneers at how trashy her tastes and immature her behavior are, because, y’know, *she is a child*?!) That’s the best I can guess, and it’s a piss-poor excuse for how anyone can misread this as the tale of a precocious seductress and a poor seduced man. And yet so many do.

        …sorry. I get rant-y about Lolita.

        October 6, 2017
        • Roast Beefy
          Roast Beefy

          @Neurite Say that shit again for the people in the back!

          October 8, 2017
  2. Megan M.
    Megan M.

    I probably can’t handle watching this (even reading the Wikipedia summary was enough to, as you say, give me an emotional gut-punch) but I’m glad to hear that the film is unflinching in portraying Ray as a sexual predator. There’s a movie called The Girl in the Book with a similar plot (woman confronts an older family friend who preyed on and exploited her when she was a young teen) but that movie explicitly places blame on her and she even seems to accept this as truth (!!!) which absolutely enraged me. I wish I’d never seen it.

    October 5, 2017
  3. Lily

    Pretty Baby misleads people, I think, because Brooke was so beautiful. It’s still a rape story.

    October 6, 2017
  4. Acton

    I saw the play recently, knowing nothing about it going in. I actually spent a bunch of time afterwards thinking about something you wrote recently about how physically small women are coded as vulnerable and wondering how an audience might have reacted differently had they cast a less petite actress. I feel like the casting played into poisonous ideas about “perfect” victims and who gets to receive sympathy, and while I don’t particularly want to direct this play, I now have a couple of actresses in mind in case I ever get the offer. (Everyone’s producing it. It’s provocative, it’s got name recognition, and you only have to pay and schedule around two actors.)

    I had mixed feelings overall, although I did appreciate that the play also landed on “Ray is the bad guy and no amount of feelings he has can change that.”

    I imagine this doesn’t happen in the movie, but there was a bunch of business about them sharing a bottle of water, and at first I thought that she was going to poison him or something. Eventually, I realized that it was just the playwright understanding that they’re asking two actors to talk for ninety straight minutes and building in excuses for them to drink water, which is pretty classy.

    October 9, 2017

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