Sydney Film Festival Review: Una (UK/USA, 2016) is a gripping abuse drama that thrives through unhesitating commitment

It would have been too easy for a film like Una to result in something unreservedly perfunctory. The fable of the abuse victim confronting her perpetrator has been depicted more than one would wish to count, and the argument can be made that a fair share wishes to portray the subject matter no more than on face value. But whereas for Una, the subject matter goes dramatically deeper in a fashion that is so confronting and so quietly intense, it is difficult to not be magnetised by the results. Headlined by a pair of performers unwaveringly basking in the taboo nature of the source material, Una expertly explores what it means to have power, the stature of sexuality and the unreachability of peace. It is a spellbinding exhibit of the effects of unjustified interaction and an unflinchingly taut piece of filmmaking that deserves to be seen.

When she was thirteen years old, Una (Ruby Stokes) engaged in a sexual relationship with her adult neighbour, Ray (Ben Mendelsohn). Eventually discovered, Ray was convicted for his crime and has since moved away to a fresh start and new respectability through the guise of a different identity. Although for Una, now a tormented adult (Rooney Mara), she has always been left with unresolved matters to elucidate. Seeing his image in a magazine, Una tracks Ray down, finding him as a warehouse manager at a manufacturing plant. Beset by her arrival, the two begin to interrogate the other with both proclaiming the negative impact one has heralded towards the other. They’re two people dropping bombs, except in this scenario, the power has been transposed to Una.

A lot more transpires beyond this, however, to delve into more detail would all but spoil the brilliance of how boldly and unflaggingly the film goes to portray its story. Una is not an easy film to sit through, that should be clarified by stating it is an exceptionally crafted film on nearly all facets, but the story is a provocative one. It permeates discomfort, dread and for the audience at my screening — uneasy chuckles. As any narrative that weaves or revolves around the concept of sexually abusive acts, especially those that involve children, can so quickly descend into a product that is unsavourily difficult to endure. With that said, testament should be given to director Benedict Andrews for not only crafting a film that never compromises the tenacity of its ideals but one that knows how to cleverly avoid becoming gratuitous.

After an illustrious career in theatre, Andrews delivers an impressive piece in his directorial debut, which is encapsulated in the compelling nature that he and cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis infuse into every image. They both treat the audience with integrity, while never resorting to excessive or uncomfortable imagery by means of heightening the story’s thematic stakes. Instead, everything is masterfully suggested, with the look in a character’s eye or a lingering pause providing an equal sense of captivation and insightful subtext than the dialogue that follows. The minimalism and dreamlike imagery to which the film uses to highlight Una’s perspective is visually remarkable. These images differentiate from serene to harrowing and the manner to which these two enforce imagery to dictate story is astonishing. As far as a debut is concerned, what Andrews has achieved is certain to exemplify him as someone worth watching in the near future.

Moreover, the performances in the film are an apex. As considering how paramount the casting of the film would be towards embodying the material’s distinguished nature, Mara and Mendelsohn exude some of their greatest work. For Mendelsohn, who does have an innate tendency to flair up, his subdued approach works magnificently to characterise a figure that all so easily could be dismissed as an out-and-out monster. He evokes complexity to the role, which is no easy feat when given a persona that demands engagement even after committing an unspeakable crime. Yet, so immersed in gravitas, he nearly accomplishes the impossible — you almost feel sorry for him. It is without question one of, if not the most, challenging and satisfying performances of his career.

While for Rooney Mara, she delivers nothing short of a tour-de-force performance. The manner to which she acts a multifold of emotions is stunningly portrayed. In a singular scene she can alternate between pure joy, rage, emptiness and determination all to a seamless degree. Mara goes beyond making Una appear fragile, she makes her unhinged. It is an emotionally naked performance and the result brings a substantial amount of believability to Una’s decision making, no matter how impulsive or volatile it can be. The manner to which Mara conveys the turmoil of this role is breathtaking. She electrifies the screen delivering an awards calibre performance, she has always been impressive but as Una she goes above and beyond.

Screenwriter David Harrower adapted the screenplay from his stage play, and through the strength of the direction and brilliant dynamic from its leads, Una hails as a sharp stage-to-screen adaptation. However, it can be said that its staged based origins do cause minor drawback. Andrews infuses clever editing and additional narrative in aim of making the feature evoke a more cinematic style. Alas, the film does struggle to dissipate the stage contained atmosphere. There are also occasions in which characterisation development do become counterintuitive to the initial ideals of our characters which tends to slightly dent their presentation. It is minimal, however, it does hinder what could have amassed a more satisfying result.

Nonetheless, Una attempts something quite gallant and it succeeds significantly. Fearless in its conviction, the film is meticulous, incredibly acted and a highly rewarding affair, and considering the mountain it has to climb given the subjectivity of the material, it is worth commending how splendidly it functions. Some aspects don’t excel and many are likely to abhor the subject matter, yet, it cannot be ignored how much depth Una conveys when it could have so easily taken the simple way out. Andrews, Mara and Mendelsohn have crafted a magnificent film that can be enjoyed as much as it can be admired and it is worthy of all the praise it will amass.

Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Una had its Australian premiere at the Sydney Film Festival. It will have a limited theatrical release beginning on June 22nd.