By Jack Dignan
Originally Published on Salty Popcorn
A teenage girl sits out the front of her house. The silence is deafening. We move in closer, gaining a better perspective of her looks and emotion. It’s a puzzling moment. Almost nothing happens, and yet, it grips you. It holds you in tight, allowing for a sense of uneasiness to fall over the audience. You don’t know exactly what it is you’re getting yourself into, but there’s an element of intrigue to it. It draws you in, before a jarring smash cut capable of knocking you back down into your seat. These are the opening moments of UNA. Words don’t do it justice. The first five-minutes of this film had me transfixed. I was in. I wanted more. And the film delivers.
The truth is often what we make of it. It’s not always reliable, and that’s one of the basic ideas behind UNA. The titular character is played by Rooney Mara, her thirteen-year-old self played by Ruby Stokes in a series of haunting flashbacks. She’s a troubled young woman, trying to live with a traumatic past yet to be revealed to the audience. Una is on a mission. Taking the day off work, she drives off on the highway, arriving at a factory full of loud, mostly male employees, including a man named Scott (Riz Ahmed). Una is after someone; Scott’s boss Ray (Ben Mendelsohn). She’s taken to him, leaving him lost for words in a tense first exchange. The two have a history, and an unpleasant one at that. Una is the last person Ray expected to see today, or ever again.
When the two begin talking, their disturbed history is brought to light. As a thirteen year old, Ray sexually abused Una. Her abuse was taken to trial, Ray was sent to prison, and neither of their lives has been the same ever since. This is the first time they’ve seen each other since, and they’re both a bit lost for words. As their sides of the story are explained, new truths are brought to life. It becomes far more of an explanation than it does a confrontation. Memories they wish were long forgotten return, and the two discover a dynamic between them that hasn’t been around since they were much younger. It’s a dialogue driven, incredibly layered movie, much like the play it’s based on. The plot is incredibly simple, as this isn’t a story driven film. It’s an exploration into the lives and history of our two central protagonists, as told through their multiple exchanges throughout a single day.
The story is layered beyond belief, slowly unravelling new dimensions and twists in these character’s troubled pasts. It’s a dissection of who they are, full of lengthy exposition made engaging through the mesmerising, terrifying performances from the two leads. UNA tackles the lives of a paedophile and sexual abuse victim in a unique, shattering light. It’s often uncomfortable, but never crosses the line. Nothing controversial is shown. It’s about the dialogue and dynamic between the two leads, and the confrontation of their personalities. They’ve both been broken in different ways, traumatised by love and sex and a history neither of them can escape. It’s a two-sided story that doesn’t empathise with paedophilia, but instead divulges into the mindset of the abuser and the victim.
Both leads are flawed individuals, stuck living a life they didn’t think they’d have. Sexual abuse isn’t depicted as a one off trauma, but instead a life altering continuation that never leaves. They’re both stuck in the past, unable to escape it no matter how hard they try. Una, as a character, has taken a lot of hits in her life, and it’s shaped her into the woman we first meet. She’s got issues. It’s constantly pointed out to her, even if she’s in denial, but her story parallels that of her abuser. Ray has fallen down a similar hole, and it makes for a tense, unpredictable relationship. When the past comes to light, anything goes and everything changes. Their initial antagonism towards each other takes a new, unexpected turn, and the film becomes something more. It rattles its audience, stirring a reaction without the obvious traits. Sitting in the cinema, I could feel everyone around me glued to the screen, their reactions frequently audible.
Mendelsohn and Mara are tremendous as the leads. They’re both flawed, unstable people with plenty brewing beneath the surface, and it demands a lot from the actors. Both of them have to pull from a really dark state of mind to give an authentic performance, and they do. Their dialogue is always lengthy and full of sorrow, guided with fierce intensity and a sense of remorse. As much as they’d hate to admit, both of the characters understand each other. It’s never mentioned, but their expressions tell it all. Every line is delivered with a series of undertones and a past unspoken. Even with some of the clunky dialogue, particularly during their first conversation in an office lunchroom, the two make it work. There’s some really heavy-handed dialogue the two are forced to deliver, and their relation makes for the most interesting aspect of the movie. It’s two powerhouse performers giving it their all and engaging the audience in a way only masters of the craft can do.
One of the more confronting aspects of the plot comes from the flashbacks between Ray and the young Una. It’s not that the scenes are explicit in content, but they’re contextually harrowing. They delve into the relation between the two characters, and the eventual evolution into more sexual circumstances. At a post-screening Q&A, Mendelsohn (who I awkwardly stood next to at a crossing and got too nervous to say anything) discussed the difficulty he had with these scenes, and understandably so. To create a more trusting off-screen relation, he spent time with the young Ruby Stokes and her family. They’re both given a tough role. Every scene they share is brought with instant unease. Their growing friendship starts innocent, but as it continues they fall down a darker path, and Stokes is brilliant. She doesn’t have an awful lot of screen time, but when she’s on, she owns the screen. She’s got a naive innocence about her, matched with a mature, adult look at the world, and Stokes develops every aspect of her character. Her performance is a perfect companion to Rooney Mara’s.
The screenplay is adapted for stage by its original playwright, David Harrower. I haven’t seen the play, but it translates to the big screen with mixed results. The overall plot works. The arc, the characters and the ultimate conclusion bring the story full circle in an unforgettable way, but it’s in need of some serious tightening. UNA clocks in at a mere 94 minutes, and it’s not that the film overstays its welcome, but more so tends to go off on a tangent, especially in the third act. Acts one and two, with the exception of some very “un-human” dialogue, flow well. It’s the third act where the plot takes a new direction, splitting the two lead stories up temporarily before bringing them back together for a finale that’s part laughable/part fascinating character study. New revelations are uncovered, big questions are raised, and the audience is left in a mixed state of mind. Certain plot elements gained nervous chuckles, while others got full on belly laughs due to the stupidity or ignorance of its lead characters.
The filmmakers don’t ruin what they were going for, but it’s tarnished. It’s a frustrating third act because it distances the audience. There’s a mix of strong ideas and important questions with moments that really wouldn’t happen in real life. They go too far. It leaves you feeling cold and depressed, falling back over the development the first hour or so expertly was able to do. Characters revert back to earlier mindsets, ignoring recent developments. One scene so obviously has something going on, yet none of the supporting characters seem to notice a thing. It’s hard to discuss without spoiling, even though it’s not a twist of any kind, but everyone in the film just seems to turn a blind eye on the actions of the protagonists. Nobody is stopped from doing anything. Nearly everything that came before it is handled with maturity, but the ending takes a leap too far. It attempts to comment on a certain subject matter, but the execution fails to live up to the earlier brilliance.
UNA is a dark, layered, confronting movie that explores a different side of its subject matter. It requires a lot from its enormously talented cast, requiring some really heavy hitting performances in order to work, and it gets them. Mendelsohn, Mara and Stokes are all tremendous, haunting and full of broken life. First time director Benedict Andrew captures their distinct characteristics with style and intensity, but the film is frustrating. It builds up something important and rarely talked about, only to tear it all apart in the hit-and-miss finale. UNA is so close to being fantastic. It only just falls short. But if it weren’t for its lead actors, who really carry the movie, it would’ve failed altogether.
3 1/2 Stars
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