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.
25 Fall Movies We're Dying to See: From 'The Birth of a Nation' to 'Rogue One' (Photos)
Fall Preview 2016: TheWrap picks the movies you need to see before the year's end, from superhero films to critically acclaimed indies.
"The Light Between Oceans" Cast: Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, Rachel Weisz Director: Derek Cianfrance Release Date: Sept. 2 What it's about: A lighthouse keeper (Fassbender) and his wife (Vikander) rescue a baby girl who washes up in a rowboat and unofficially adopt her. When the girl grows older, an encounter with a certain woman on the mainland threatens to break up their happy life. Why we're dying to see it: This is the movie that started the real-life Fassbender-Vikander romance. We have to see the chemistry that unfolds between them on screen.
"The Magnificent Seven" Director: Antoine Fuqua Cast: Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke Release Date: Sept. 23 What it's about: A remake of the classic Western about seven outlaws as they help a town under siege by an industrialist villain. Why we're dying to see it: It's an A-list remake that showcases some good diversity. Plus Antoine Fuqua directed "Training Day," in which Denzel Washington won an Academy Award for Best Actor.
"Queen of Katwe" Director: Mira Nair Cast: Lupita Nyong'o, David Oyelowo, Madina Nalwanga Release Date: Sept. 23 What it's about: A biographical drama about Phiona Mutesi, a Ugandan chess prodigy who earned Woman Candidate Master at the World Chess Olympiads. Why we're dying to see it: It's an untold story of a Ugandan chess player who grew up in the slum of Katwe. Rarely do we get to see feel-good stories about Africa on the big screen.
Walt Disney Pictures
"The Girl on the Train" Cast: Emily Blunt, Rebecca Ferguson, Haley Bennett Director: Tate Taylor Release Date: Oct. 7 What it's about: The story follows a recently divorced woman (Blunt) who fantasizes during her daily commute about the seemingly perfect couple who live in a house that her train passes every day, until she sees something shocking and becomes entangled in a mystery. Why we're dying to see it: It's based on Paula Hawkins' best-selling novel and has the same feel as "Gone Girl."
"The Birth of a Nation" Cast: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Mark Boone Junior, Gabrielle Union Director: Nate Parker Release Date: Oct. 7 What it's about: Parker stars as the 19th-century slave Nat Turner, who was taught to read the Bible to preach to fellow slaves but wound up leading a famous rebellion in 1831. Why we're dying to see it: Parker's directorial debut was phenomenon at Sundance, where it was bought for a festival-record $17.5 million.
Fox Searchlight Pictures
"Kevin Hart: What Now?" Cast: Kevin Hart Director: Leslie Small Release Date: Oct. 14 What it's about: A stand-up comedy film that features his performance from the recently concluded "What Now?" tour. Why we're dying to see it: It's been five long years since his last stand-up film, "Laugh at My Pain."
"A Monster Calls" Cast: Liam Neeson, Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones Director: J.A. Bayona Release Date: Oct. 21 What it's about: A young boy deals with a terminally ill mother and bullies at school with the help of an ancient monster tree (voiced by Liam Neeson). Why we're dying to see it: Patrick Ness' fantastical children's novel, based on an idea from a woman with terminal cancer, was adapted for the screen by Ness himself.
"Doctor Strange" Cast:Rachel McAdams, Benedict Cumberbatch, Benedict Wong, Mads Mikkelson, Tilda Swinton Director: Scott Derrickson Release Date: Nov. 4 What it's about: Dr. Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) is an egotistical but brilliant surgeon whose career is destroyed after a car accident ruins his hands. Searching the globe to repair them, he encounters the Ancient One (Swinton), a sorcerer who trains Strange to defend the world from evil. Why we’re excited to see it: Doctor Strange is one of Marvel’s more eccentric (and lesser known) heroes and the trailers have promised plenty some seriously trippy, magical mayhem.
Walt Disney Studios
“Hacksaw Ridge” Cast:Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Vince Vaughn, Teresa Palmer Director:Mel Gibson Release Date: Nov. 4 What it’s about: It's based on the true story of U.S. Army medic Desmond T. Doss (Garfield) during World War II. Doss refused to kill anybody or bear arms, becoming the first conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honor from President Harry Truman. Why we’re excited to see it: The story sounds fascinating, and this is Mel Gibson’s first film as a director since 2006’s “Apocalypto.”
"Loving" Cast: Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga, Nick Kroll Director: Jeff Nichols Release Date: Nov. 4 What it's about: An interracial couple wages a legal fight against imprisonment in the mid-20th-century South, leading to the landmark 1967 Supreme Court decision Loving v. Virginia. Why we're dying to see it: The film has been building buzz since its debut at Cannes, particularly for co-star Ruth Negga.
"All Eyez on Me" Cast: Demetrius Shipp Jr. Danai Gurira, Lauren Cohan Director: Benny Boom Release Date: Nov. 11 What it's about: A biopic on Tupac Shaku's rise to fame all the way to his death during a drive-by in Las Vegas. Why we're dying to see it: Tupac has had multiple films made about his life, but the last one worth watching ("Tupac: Resurrection") was released 13 years ago. Plus, Tupac.
Open Road Films
"Arrival" Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker Director: Denis Villeneuve Release Date: Nov. 16 What it's about: After alien spacecrafts descend on Earth, a linguist (Adams) is hired by the U.S. government to investigate them. Why we're dying to see it: The film has a strong pedigree, Adams has been nominated for five Oscars and the director's last film, "Sicario," received three Oscar nominations.
"Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" Cast: Kristen Stewart, Chris Tucker, Vin Diesel, Garrett Hedlund Director: Ang Lee Release Date: Nov. 11 What it's about: Based on a novel of the same name, the film follows an Iraq war hero whose victory tour back in the U.S. is interrupted by jarring flashbacks. Why we're dying to see it: Great source material, and Ang Lee's first film since another eye-catching literary adaptation, "The Life of Pi."
“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” Cast:Eddie Redmayne, Ezra Miller, Colin Farrell Director: David Yates Release Date: Nov. 18 What it’s about: Before Harry Potter even existed, there was Newt Scamander (Redmayne). The wizard -- and future author of a textbook mainstay at Hogwarts — visits the Magical Congress of the United States in 1926, but loses control of a special briefcase containing a number of dangerous beasts. Why we’re excited to see it:J.K. Rowling. Wizards. Eddie Redmayne.
“Nocturnal Animals” Cast:Jake Gyllenhaal, Amy Adams, Isla Fisher, Armie Hammer Director:Tom Ford Release Date: Nov. 18 What it’s about: In an adaptation of Austin Wright's 1933 novel “Tony and Susan,” Adams stars as an art gallery owner who begins receiving the manuscript of her ex-husband’s violent thriller novel. As Susan reads more of the story, she begins to interpret it as a threat. Why we’re excited to see it: This will be fashion designer Tom Ford’s second directorial feature, following 2009’s “A Single Man.” The dynamic cast is sure to make this thriller a memorable one.
"Manchester by the Sea" Cast:Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Lucas Hedge Director: Kenneth Lonergan Release Date: Nov. 18 What it’s about: An uncle (Affleck) must take care of his teenage nephew (Hedge) and return to his hometown after the death of the boy’s father. Why we’re excited to see it: The film received high praise when it premiered at Sundance and Lucas Hedge delivers a breakout performance as the nephew, Patrick.
"Moana" Cast:Dwayne Johnson, Auli’i Cravalho, Phillipa Soo Director: Ron Clements, John Musker Release Date: Nov. 23 What it’s about: A young woman, Moana (Cravalho), sets sail for a fabled island and is joined by demigod Maui (Johnson) along the way. Why we’re excited to see it: The animated musical is Disney’s first story about a Polynesian princess and will feature original music by “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda. Plus, the Rock sings!
"La La Land" Cast:Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, J.K. Simmons, Finn Wittrock Director: Damien Chazelle Release Date: Dec. 2 What it’s about: Stone and Gosling star as an aspiring actress and a jazz pianist, respectively, in modern-day L.A. The two meet and soon fall in love, but as each begins to find success in their dream careers, their relationship threatens to tear apart. Why we’re excited to see it: We’ve already seen the chemistry between Stone and Gosling in “Crazy, Stupid, Love” and “Gangster Squad,” so we can’t wait to see what happens with the two of them when dancing and music are added in this romantic comedy-drama musical.
"Fences" Director: Denzel Washington Cast: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Jovan Adepo Release Date: Dec. 16 What's it about: A once-promising baseball player ends up working as a garbageman in 1950s Pittsburgh. Why we're dying to see it: August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize winning play with two amazing actors -- who won Tonys in 2010 for playing these very roles on Broadway.
20th Century Fox
"Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" Cast:Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Riz Ahmed, Mads Mikkelsen Director: Gareth Edwards Release Date: Dec. 16 What it’s about: Essentially a prequel to “Star Wars: A New Hope,” the film follows a group of Rebel spies as they attempt to steal plans for the Death Star. Why we’re excited to see it: Not only is it the first standalone film in the "Star Wars" franchise, but the trailer promises a badass female lead and plenty of fight scenes.
"Collateral Beauty" Cast:Will Smith, Keira Knightley, Helen Mirren, Kate Winslet, Edward Norton Director: David Frankel Release Date: Dec. 16 What it’s about: An advertising executive in New York faces a downward spiral after a tragic event, prompting his colleagues to seek a plan to get him out his funk. Why we’re excited to see it: “The Devil Wears Prada” director returns to New York City with an all-star cast.
"The Founder" Cast:Michael Keaton, Laura Dern, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch Director: John Lee Hancock Release Date: Dec. 16 What it’s about: The biographical film follows Ray Kroc (Keaton) meeting Mac and Dick McDonald and developing the first McDonald’s franchise. Why we’re excited to see it: Aren’t you curious to hear how McDonald’s started? And Keaton could be back in the Oscar race for the third straight year.
"Passengers" Cast:Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishburne Director: Morten Tyldum Release Date: Dec. 21 What it’s about: Lawrence and Pratt play two passengers aboard a spacecraft that’s on a 120-year journey to a distant planet. Due to a malfunction, two passengers are prematurely woken up with 90 years left to go on the voyage. Why we’re excited to see it: Two of Hollywood's biggest stars team for a sci-fi romance that seemed very promising from the first footage shown at CinemaCon in April.
"Why Him?" Cast:James Franco, Zoey Deutch, Bryan Cranston, Keegan-Michael Key, Adam DeVine, Megan Mullally Director: John Hamburg Release Date: Dec. 25 What it’s about: A father (Cranston) meets his daughter’s wealthy and eccentric boyfriend (Franco) and immediately dislikes him -- and resists all of Franco's attempts to win him over. Why we’re excited to see it: Cranston and Franco seem like the perfect oddball pairing-- plus it's great to see them both in a comdy.
20th Century Fox
"Toni Erdmann" Cast: Peter Simonischek, Sandra Hüller, Michael Wittenborn Director: Maren Ade Release Date: Dec. 25 What it’s about: An older father (Simonischek) tries to reconnect with his adult daughter (Hüller) by playing pranks on her. Why we’re excited to see it: The comedic film, a hit at Cannes, boasts a 91 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. TheWrap’s Steve Pond described it as a “hysterically funny but deeply touching father-daughter story that ... doesn’t waste a moment.”
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Fall Movie Preview 2016: TheWrap picks the films you need to see before year’s end
Fall Preview 2016: TheWrap picks the movies you need to see before the year's end, from superhero films to critically acclaimed indies.