Watching a movie where childhood sexual abuse is the central subject matter is always incredibly difficult. Watching a movie where the two main characters – the victim and the perpetrator – spend the entire film discussing said sexual abuse in graphic detail is absolutely excruciating. And yet Una, director Benedict Andrews’ adaptation of David Harrower’s play Blackbird, makes it nearly impossible to look away despite the deeply troubling subject matter.
Rooney Mara plays Una, a hard-partying young woman haunted by some traumatic event in her past – an event hinted at through various clues and flashbacks early in the film. The nature of that trauma is not entirely clear to the viewer until Una takes a long drive to a neighbouring city and confronts Ray (Ben Mendelsohn), a middle-aged warehouse manager, at his workplace. Ray, who now goes by Peter, sexually abused Una over several months when she was 12, a time that culminated with the two absconding to a seaside town to have sex. Ray abandoned Una shortly afterward and was eventually arrested and imprisoned, but the incident looms large in both their lives. Una is now determined to confront her past, literally Ray, a man who has done everything in his power to escape it.
Una asks the viewer to accompany Una and Ray as they unpack their disturbing history with one another – as well as their complex feelings for each other nearly two decades after the fact. It’s a tough journey to undertake (you could feel frequent waves of discomfort wash over the cinema), but Mara and Mendelsohn are both so damn good that you’ll be desperate to know how the situation resolves itself. Mara plays the role with a mix of confidence and confusion that’s befitting given what her character has endured. It makes it impossible to tell where Una’s feelings are coming from one moment to the next. Are they the product of her emotional manipulation as a child or of someone who’s finally come to terms with her past and knows exactly what she wants? The film never questions that Una is the victim in all of this, but it does, up to a point, question how you should feel about her victimizer. It’s an uncomfortable place to be put as a viewer, but it’s a testament to the screenplay – and indeed the strength of Mendelsohn’s performance – that you feel anything for Ray at all.
Tense and well-acted, Una is not an easy film to watch, but it features two of the best performances of 2016.