Una: One Great Performance Can’t Save This

Written by Matt Taylor

Rooney Mara is an unquestionably talented actress; perhaps the best of her generation and, if not, at least an actress who plays a particular set of roles in a way her contemporaries don’t seem capable of. Since her first major starring role in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo she has excelled at playing tortured anti-heroes and troubled women, only occasionally stepping out from that type of roll (see: her Oscar worthy work in last year’s Carol).

In Una, Mara once again steps into the sort of role she seems to prefer. She plays the titular character who, as a young girl, was molested by her father’s best friend and neighbor, Ray (Ben Mendelsohn of Netflix’s “Bloodline”). The scars of her abuse are still visible; as Una grows older she struggles to forge meaningful relationships, and still lives at home. But she also only somewhat understands that what she experienced as a child was, in fact, abuse. A part of her sees Ray as her first serious relationship, and when she sees that he is out of prison and has started a new life without her, she is hurt, and decides to track him down to confront him. Thus begins a daylong war of words between the two, as Una seeks answers about what their relationship meant, and if he is still potentially interested in her.

Una is an adaptation of David Harrower’s play “Blackbird,” and its origins are abundantly clear. The film tries its hardest to feel cinematic, adding flashbacks to Una’s childhood, but it can mostly be broken down into two distinct acts, driven almost solely by dialogue. While Mara and Mendelsohn both try to make these scenes watchable, there is something unbelievably tedious about them. Director Benedict Andrews embraces the film’s dark content in an unflinching way that feels a tad exploitative at times. He also can’t seem to work out how we’re supposed to feel about either character. In some uncomfortable scenes, Una is almost made to be a villain – someone who could expose Ray’s secret past to his coworkers – while Ray is shown in a sympathetic light. So, while the ending makes it abundantly clear that Ray is a bad guy, and that Una is unquestionably a victim, the fact that this thesis statement of sorts is clouded by earlier moments shows sloppy direction and unwise creative decisions.

Truthfully, it seems like Andrews couldn’t figure out how to turn this play into a compelling film. The flashbacks are incredibly dull, adding nothing to the story, and making no revelation to the audience that wasn’t already apparent through dialogue. The movie also makes the mistake of adding a new major character in Riz Ahmed’s Scott, who works for Ray, and also takes an interest in Una when she visits him. Riz Ahmed is a talented actor whose bound for great things, but his presence here is so distracting and uninteresting that his scenes become grating. At the same time, a 90-minute film of Rooney Mara and Ben Mendelsohn fighting sounds like it could have gotten dull fast. There was simply no way to win with this one. Una probably should have stayed on stage.

If anything, Una does contain a strong performance from Rooney Mara. She perfectly embodies the pain Una must feel, and shows how incapable she has been of being able to grow up properly. She’s a tragic figure, but also one who is unpredictable and frightening. And, as we’ve seen from Mara before, she is absolutely terrific at communicating a character’s innermost thoughts through her eye and body language. The final scene of Una relies solely on Mara’s face to communicate with the audience, and in lesser hands the moment would have fell flat. For what it’s worth, Mendelsohn also does a nice job with a confusingly written character, but this is very much Mara’s show.

It shouldn’t be surprising that Una is an uncomfortable viewing experience. Nothing ever makes these moments feel earned. Rooney Mara is great, yes, but Benedict Andrews has created a tonally confusing film that wants to create complicated characters in a situation where there is, unquestionably, a victim and a villain. While the final scene shows that Andrews’ heart was in the right place, we shouldn’t have to sit through 94 minutes to be sure of that.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 10