Australian theater director Benedict Andrews makes his film debut with “Una,” an uneasy adaptation of David Harrower’s play “Blackbird,” about a young woman who had a sexual relationship at age 12 with a 40-year-old man who went to prison for four years for his crime. Harrower’s play dramatizes the disturbing way these two people were originally drawn together and the aspects of their sick bond that they cannot let go of.
“Blackbird” was most notably done on Broadway earlier in 2016 with Jeff Daniels and Michelle Williams, and both Daniels and Williams are histrionic virtuosos when it comes to this kind of punishing and self-punishing material. But in “Una,” the two lead roles of Una and Ray are played by Rooney Mara and Ben Mendelsohn, and neither of them fully engage with the parts they are playing or the material itself, which feels bold and evasive by turns on the subject of pedophilia.
“Una” begins with near-silent scenes that show us Una as a young girl and then as a sexually promiscuous young woman who has found out that Ray has a new job at a warehouse. When she walks to where he works, Una nervously vomits a little before going in, a movie cliché that does not disturb the hard beauty of Mara’s face or her steady, watchful manner.
After this opening section, which lasts around 15 minutes, Harrower’s original 80-minute play begins in fits and starts, because Andrews has chosen to open up the action with extensive and sometimes confusing flashbacks. Andrews films Una and Ray in a way that nearly always keeps them visually separate from each other, and this does not help Mara or Mendelsohn establish the twisted chemistry that we need to feel between these characters.
Andrews is known in the theater for productions of classic plays that he overlays with distracting visual and musical cues, as in his modernized production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” with Gillian Anderson that used rock music in between scenes played on a large revolving set. In “Una,” Andrews keeps backing away from the drama of the play by cutting to distanced shots of Una and Ray in the spacious environment of the large warehouse where Ray is working.
As in his additions to “Streetcar” on stage, all of these showy shots of the sterile warehouse don’t have much to do with the content of the writing. Instead of trying to bring out the meaning of Harrower’s rather questionable play, Andrews is focused on a glacial style of filming that seems to put everything under glass.
“Una” keeps drifting away into flashy and superfluous details, like an annoying running subplot about Ray’s troubles at work that has little to do with the battle between the two main characters, yet there are barely any other people in “Una” aside from Ray’s work colleague Scott (Riz Ahmed, “The Night Of”), who is barely characterized. The keynote here is uncertainty, but when a real decision is made it turns out to be a bad one. Andrews makes a very strange choice in a flashback scene where the young Una is frantically looking for Ray at a bar and two men, one young and one old, stare at her knowingly and lustfully, as if she has suddenly become a sexual target to any man around.
What is left of Harrower’s play is conveyed in short bits of blunt dialogue that eventually become frankly sexual, but Andrews is so uncomfortable with the implications of what is happening between Una and Ray that when they kiss each other and try to make love he retreats to a shot of the lockers in the work room where they have been talking. This is meant to mirror an earlier shot in a flashback when they secretly met up in a park, but this necessary looking away in the first instance feels anxiously tasteful when Andrews does it a second time. Everything here leads up to a climactic revelation about Ray that was supposed to be ambiguous in the stage version but feels all too obvious in “Una.”
The doleful Mendelsohn keeps his emotions so close to the vest in this movie that finally he doesn’t seem to have any emotions at all to be hiding, while Mara is similarly ungiving and blank in her part — both of them are very far from the tumultuous despair that Daniels and Williams brought to these roles on Broadway. It finally seems like Daniels and Williams somehow papered over the flaws in Harrower’s play on stage, but on film in “Una” these imperfections are exposed by actors who do not connect with their roles and a director who is nervous and unsure about the inflammatory main situation.