Renowned theatre director Benedict Andrews makes a remarkable feature debut with Una, a screen adaptation of David Harrower’s award-winning play Blackbird. Get our two-part interview with Benedict Andrews.
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Pedophilia is such a taboo subject that we rarely talk about it except to call it vile. When someone becomes a victim, the world wants to punish the culprit and move forward with the knowledge that a wrong has been righted. What we don’t discuss is how two people were involved and that an emotional connection, however twisted, was forged.
Even 13-year-old girls have sexual feelings. Putting a stop to the sexual act didn’t make the problem go away. And it certainly never left the mind of the eponymous Una (Rooney Mara) of Benedict Andrews’s feature debut, a twentysomething woman whose entire life has been defined by the sexual relationship she had with a middle-aged man, Ray (Ben Mendehlson) when she was 13.
Based on David Harrower’s Olivier Award Winning play Blackbird, which he has also adapted for the screen, Una is about reckoning with the past by trying to break the silence. Una confronts Ray about their relationship, both angry and accusing and tender and needy. As an adult, she can understand and say the things she didn’t when they were in each other’s lives, but she’s also susceptible to trying to rewrite history, now that she’s old enough to consent. Because things ended between them so abruptly — Ray went to prison and Una was told he was disgusted with himself — there are lots of blanks to fill in their memories. They may be toxic to one another, but they’re also the only two people who went through this ordeal together.
Andrews’ film opens up the world of Blackbird by shifting the film to Una’s perspective, and adding scenes around the explosive confrontation, which take the action outside of Harrower’s original one-room set. The film introduces Ray’s coworkers to the mix, most notably his employee and friend Scott (Riz Ahmed) who takes an immediate, if cautious, liking to Una. Because so much of Una’s and Ray’s relationship is about what hasn’t been said, it’s invaluable for Andrews to flash back to past events, which are present in their minds. We’re no longer faced solely with two unreliable narrators but allowed to share in their memories and all the confusion that brings. There’s also a lot that Andrews can suggest with images: rather than showing their past liaisons, Andrews merely returns to the image of the tree behind which they would secretly meet.
In Andrews’ film, every set has metaphorical significance. Ray works in a factory with ceiling-high stacks of boxes, like his baggage with Una that’s been sealed up and locked away. The main set where Una and Ray interact is the factory’s break room with glass walls: it’s a bubble where their taboo relationship can exist, but it’s always under scrutiny from the outside world. There’s an almost hidden enclave between the rows of lockers in the room, which allows them to physically play hide and seek while they’re doing it emotionally. When Una runs away into a bathroom cubicle to hide, it provides a barrier, even though they exchange intimacies as he tenderly touches the wall and whispers to her.
The lingering question throughout is how much agency did Una have? The opening scene, which shows us 13-year-old Una sitting in front of her house, presents an image of a young, innocent girl. But when she runs into her backyard, her shirt falls open to reveal a bikini and a body more mature than we may have expected. This dichotomy, of Una being both mature beyond her years and too young to really give consent, pervades the film. Ray’s girlfriend at the time may have thought Una had an eye on him, but she was just a child. On the other hand, we see her display some extremely manipulative and needy behaviour as an adult. Is this a coping mechanism for the trauma Ray caused her? Does this prove that she may have had a role in initiating their relationship? Or was this vulnerability exactly what he was able to exploit? Just how blindly innocent was little Una, and does it even matter?
This thought-provoking and emotionally volatile story is anchored by three world-class performances. As Una, with her long hair hanging over her shoulders, Mara finds a girlish physicality that gets magnified when she’s around Ray: she’s small and pliable, and she moves tentatively. As Ray, Mendehlson walks a tightrope of showing us a predator, a man scared that his life is about to fall apart by the return of his past, and a man capable of great tenderness. Meanwhile, Riz Ahmed’s Scott serves as the outside world caving in on Una and Ray, giving them someone to align themselves against or hide from. Scott is confident and direct, straightforward and caring, and he’s also susceptible to the vehement attentions of a pretty woman. Even as they use him as a pawn in their game, he’s always a person with agency and intelligence, trying to sort out the mess that’s clearly passed between them.
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Una screened at the Toronto International Film Festival and will also screen in competition at the London Film Festival. It is still seeking North American distribution.