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Una Review: A Beautifully Adapted Nail-Biter

By  · Published on September 23rd, 2016

The challenging material is masterfully brought to the screen by veteran stage director Benedict Andrews.

The adaptation process from stage to screen has routinely proven to be difficult to master. The final film products very often feel stagey and in many cases the sparse settings can result in an unintentional claustrophobia. In films like Carnage, this stage to screen claustrophobia utilizes this claustrophobia to enhance the tension of the film. Another adaptation, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, duplicates the original theatre script, but moves scenes to exterior settings. One of the more audacious stage to screen adaptations comes in Benedict Andrews’ Una. Adapted by playwright David Harrower from his award-winning play Blackbird, Andrews and Harrower focus on the small-spaced induced anxiety found in the original work, while also crafting new material to allow the work to thrive on screen.

When Una (Rooney Mara) was a girl, she entered into a relationship with her older neighbor Ray (Ben Mendelsohn). Ray was convicted of the sexual abuse of a minor, and shipped off to jail. Una, convinced she was in love with the man, remained at home, growing up a pariah. Now a young woman, Una still lives with her mother in her childhood home. She spends her evenings getting wasted and having rough promiscuous sex, blaming her uncontrollable ways on the traumas of her childhood. In an attempt to move on, Una has tracked down Ray, who now manages a factory under the name Peter. Unannounced, she shows up at Ray’s workplace, demanding an explanation.

Known for his work directing for the stage, Andrews has never shied away from difficult material. In his first feature, he not only embraces a challenging play, but ups the ante in his interpretation. Much of Una explores the relationship that took place between Una and Ray fifteen years earlier. In Harrower’s original play, this relationship is explored in monologues from each character. However, in the film, Andrews decides to explore these recollections as flashbacks. Without showing the sex act itself, Andrews is nevertheless able to craft some of the most uncomfortable moments in recent cinema. He continues to confront the viewer in the way he shoots these characters. The viewer is forced to bear witness to this complex relationship through a series of intrusive close-ups. Thus, the building tension is rendered inescapable. With the medium giving the film the freedom to explore its setting, Andrews sets up Una as a cat and mouse game of sorts. No longer confined to the factory break room, Una and Ray follow each other through the building’s many rooms and corridors. This freedom of movement often allows for momentary relief from the tension building between the protagonists. While this does make for a less cringe worthy experience, it does sort of disable one of the factor’s that makes the source work so strong. Nevertheless, the unbearable tension does finally appear when Harrower and Andrews abandon the source material in the film’s final act. Shockingly – for anyone familiar with the play – Una and Ray leave the factory. If the writers were sticking to the original script, Una would end here. Instead, the film explores the confrontation’s aftershocks as it builds up to an unsettling conclusion.

Una could be shown with Lion as a film to remind viewers just how incredibly talented Rooney Mara is. While the latter turns her into prop, Una gives Mara the material to craft the sort of complex character audiences have come to respect her for. Equally challenging as her Lisbeth Salander of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Therese Belivet of Carol, Mara gives a powerful, shocking, and fearless performance. Mendelsohn, known for frequently playing the villain, gives a surprisingly tender performance. Difficult to read throughout, Mendelsohn takes a much quieter approach than we are used to seeing from the actor. This makes his convicted pedophile surprisingly – and uncomfortable so – less villainous.

Benedict Andrew’s Blackbird adaptation Una works astonishingly well onscreen. In transforming the source material the director has crafted a film that is as moving as it is thrilling. It is an unprecedented approach to the subject matter; an experimental treatment a promising new cinematic voice.

Toronto-based cinephile who especially enjoys French films.