Tackling difficult subject matter, this confrontational drama offers an assured, commandingly acted powder keg of emotions.

When Una (Rooney Mara, The Discovery) reunites with Ray (Ben Mendelsohn, TV’s Bloodline), she doesn’t hide her pain. She can’t. A determined glare adorns her face, but she’s clearly distressed. She has dressed up for the occasion, called in sick to work and driven a considerable distance — she wants to be there — but there’s a difference between thinking about someone for 15 years, and actually coming face-to-face with the destructive imprint they’ve left on your existence. “I hate the life that I’ve had,” she flings at him, the words jumping from her tongue with more than a decade’s worth of complex emotions. He went to jail as a result of their relationship; she feels like she’s been imprisoned in her teenage misery.

Intertwining their reunion with snippets of their previous time together, Una unpacks the duo’s tale — one of a 13-year-old girl (Ruby Stokes, Da Vinci's Demons) and a middle-aged man, of a romance that shouldn’t have happened, and of the fallout when an attempt to run away and start a new life ended badly. Adapted from David Harrower’s stage production Blackbird, with the Scottish playwright scripting and Australian theatre director Benedict Andrews making his filmmaking debut, it steps into difficult territory with an eye for just how tricky the material is; indeed, demonstrating how complicated Una and Ray’s bond was, and still remains, sits at the heart of the feature.

Of course, the subject of sexual abuse doesn’t make for easy viewing; however, Una doesn’t hew to the usual path in its exploration of the topic. Carefully, though sometimes heavy-handedly, it stakes its drama not only on the consequences of Una and Ray’s illicit affair, but also on their connection. While there’s never any doubt that their relationship was wholly inappropriate, the film ponders just what it meant to a child taken advantage of by a friendly neighbour and yet still swept up in the flourishes of first love. She was drawn to him as a girl, and — both despite and because of the trauma that followed; stemming equally from lingering adolescent affection and simmering resentment; and as an act of fantasy, soul-searching, confrontation, and vengeful catharsis combined — she’s still drawn to him now.

Nodding to the piece’s theatre origins, Andrews boxes audiences in with Una’s duelling motivations — and, with Una and Ray as well. Cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis (The Lobster) surveys the spaces around them, jumping from a backyard and hotel room in the past to a warehouse’s various rooms in the present, while also peering closely at Mara and Mendelsohn’s faces to reinforce a sense of confinement. Neutral tones further stifle and constrain, making the characters’ interplay the liveliest happenings on the screen. Though used sparingly, Jed Kurzel’s (Alien: Covenant) tense score echoes with unease, a feeling further stressed — along with conflict and juxtaposition — by Nick Fenton’s (Life) fluid editing between current events and dream-like flashbacks.

Blended together, Andrews’ approach traps viewers in a powder keg of pent-up emotions, then watches as it suddenly explodes in prolonged bursts of spat-out dialogue and heated physical interactions. Still, for all of its stylistic assurance, casting might be Una’s strongest asset. Riz Ahmed (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) is sympathetic but underused as one of Ray’s employees, and Tara Fitzgerald (In the Club) offers a blatant manifestation of Una’s years of suffering in a brief part as her mother, but Mara and Mendelsohn (and the excellent Stokes) control the movie’s mood and impact. It’s a testament to their abilities that each doesn’t so much reveal their characters’ contradictions, and the thematic and narrative parallels they’re embodying, as wear them; it’s a testament to their commanding performances that — one fearless, fixated and fragile, the other troubled, wearied but charismatic — they make such a difficult slice of emotional devastation impossible to look away from.

Rating: 3 ½ stars out of 5

Director: Benedict Andrews
UK/USA, 2017, 105 mins

Sydney Film Festival
7 – 18 June 2017

Release date: 22 June 2017
Distributor: Madman
Rated: 18+ / CTC

Sarah Ward

Friday 9 June, 2017

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, SBS Movies and Flicks Australia. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, Metro Magazine, Screen Education and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay