Here’s an undeniable fact about the movies: Every last one of them is watched in a specific time and place. A couple of weeks ago, I saw the Billie Jean King biopic “Battle of the Sexes” as Donald Trump edged the world closer to nuclear war by trading insults with North Korea on Twitter. (LOL that this is our reality now.)
In the theater, I swooned at the giddy but delicate romance between the tennis pro and her hair stylist. But I couldn’t help being jolted out of the picture when Elton John’s “Rocket Man” came on the soundtrack, unexpectedly recalling Trump’s nickname for Kim Jong-Un and the possible consequences of such petty sniping. I wasn’t alone in my distraction; several people in the auditorium laughed nervously.
Since the inauguration, many left-leaning film writers have joked about a Burgess Meredith-in-“The Twilight Zone” type of scenario in which moviegoers will emerge from a screening to discover that the world has ended. As fleeting as that “Rocket Man” moment was — and as arguably unfair as that accidental Trump connection is to “Battle of the Sexes,” though one could also make the case that the boor v. goody-goody drama benefits greatly from its parallels to the 2016 election — that screening experience drove home for me the inevitability that viewers process movies in light of our experiences.
I write this review of “Una,” a film that focuses on the ambivalence with which a young woman and a middle-aged man look back on the sexual relationship they started when she was 13, just a few hours after the New York Times’ publication of an article detailing allegations of producer Harvey Weinstein’s decades-long pattern of sexual misconduct.
Starring Rooney Mara as the title character and Ben Mendelsohn as her former lover/predator Ray, the stage-to-screen adaptation excels in suggesting all the gradations of gray that aren’t covered by the phrase “statutory rape”: the pair’s mutual affection for each other, then and now; the aura of specialness he gave her by choosing her over his age-appropriate girlfriend; her “determination” to be with him, at least in the older man’s remembrance.
But contemplating a pedophile’s “softer side” is the last thing I want to do after dwelling for hours on an industry titan’s sexual exploitation of women with far fewer years and much less power than his own. (Preceding Weinstein in the headlines was Roman Polanski again, who was accused by a fourth woman of sexual assault. Before the infamous director was critic Harry Knowles, and before him film personality Devin Faraci, and before them was the Cinefamily scandal, et cetera ad nauseum. As April Wolfe asked and answered in the “LA Weekly” recently, “Who gets to lose themselves in the dark? Not [women], apparently.”
In terms of filmmaking craft, “Una” is what it should be: An uncomfortably simmering feature that successfully uproots David Harrower’s award-winning play “Blackbird” from its origins in the theater. (Harrower adapts; Benedict Andrews makes his directorial debut.) Flashbacks to the three months that Una and Ray had their relationship — an addition to the stage version — underscore the age gulf between them. (Ruby Stokes plays the prepubescent Una.) Mendelsohn in particular is well cast; he can skillfully embody a bad man pretending to be good, which Ray might be, as well as a good man who can’t help looking shifty, which Ray might also be.
After chancing upon his photograph 15 years after the end of their relationship, Una drives to his workplace to confront him. About what, we never really know. The film is most successful as a study of unprocessed trauma. The young woman flings all the arrows she’s stored up at her ex-neighbor. He abused and targeted and maybe even groomed her, she claims. She’s irate one second, pleading the next, nostalgic thereafter. Mara’s compelling from moment to moment, but her usual understated acting isn’t enough to construct a core for an already flighty character.
Una’s not even sure what the biggest trauma was: the relationship, the discovery of it by authorities, the trial in which she had to testify against him, or the years of taunting and ostracization she received after he got to leave their town and she didn’t. She still lives with her mother, in her childhood bedroom. “I lost my life,” she accuses Ray, shortly before asking him in half-reminisce, half-seduction, how he knew he’d made her orgasm as a teenager.
Victimhood is rarely tidy, and Una is exemplary of that fact. When Ray abruptly leaves her at the warehouse where he works, she immediately takes up with one of his younger co-workers (Riz Ahmed) and hatches something resembling a vengeance plan.
It takes virtuosic writing to bring out all the tonal variations and emotional facets of Una and Ray’s relationship. The film is meant to be a negotiation of what that long-ago relationship was, and it is that. But considered in our reality of pervasive sexual iniquity, “Una” also feels, whatever its creators’ intentions, an awful lot like a litany of self-serving excuses for pedophilic behavior, which may or may not be sincere.
Most of Ray’s defense rests on his insistence that he’s not “one of them,” the kind of inexcusable monster who preys on children. And so we’re stuck with a man who contends that he’s that mythical “good” pedophile who seduced a 13-year-old girl, I guess? He’s rightly fearful that she’ll upend the new life and identity he’s built after prison. But once again (and again and again), we’re asked to sympathize with a possible liar about how the much younger woman he took sexual advantage of might destroy his life.
Not today, Satan. Not today.