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Exploring The Themes of Sexual Abuse Drama ‘Una’ With Its Creative Team

“Everything in a film like this has signification.”
By  · Published on October 11th, 2017

“Everything in a film like this has signification.”

Benedict Andrews, the renowned Australian theater director who’s staged plays around the globe with the likes of Isabelle Huppert and Cate Blanchett, brings the complex, traumatic and icily wounding sexual abuse drama Una to screen as his cinematic directorial debut. Adapted from David Harrower’s Olivier Award-winning stage play Blackbird (recently on Broadway with Michelle Williams and Jeff Daniels), in which a young woman confronts an older man who had sexually and emotionally abused her when she was a 13-year-old child, Una offers a challenging yet compassionate look inside a female sexual abuse victim’s emotional psyche with clarity and tension.

Starring Rooney Mara and Ben Mendelsohn in lead roles (and Ruby Stokes, who plays the young Una), Andrews’ film is bound to be divisive and controversial, much like the stage play it’s adapted from (which Andrews himself directed in Berlin over a decade ago.) But it’s a worthwhile, highly-accomplished and tightly-written drama that faces its tough themes head on; one that doesn’t lose sight of who the victim is even when putting its young protagonist’s heightened vulnerability and trauma on display in an industrial, claustrophobic setting.

I sat down with Benedict Andrews, Ben Mendelsohn, and Rooney Mara recently to discuss the themes and making of Una.

Benedict Andrews on the appeal of bringing David Harrower’s stage play Blackbird to screen

The play had really stuck with me after directing it [myself in 2005]. The two [characters] haven’t seen each other for 15 years. They have so many unanswered questions and they can only answer these questions by facing each other. There’s something about the volatility of this relationship and the raw wounds that both of them still have that is really compelling. I was also interested in the verbal boxing match of the play that might actually transform in cinema, to become a kind of deep meditation on the emotional experience of time, and how something that marked both their lives 15 years ago was still echoing and recurring in the present.

What happens to wrecked lives? How do people begin to approach questions that they can’t answer for anyone else but the other person that they’re locked in that knot with? The kind of moral, emotional questions of that knot is great material for actors. [I had] a curiosity of what that might draw out of performances.

Rooney Mara on her delicate portrayal of a victim of pedophilia and sexual abuse

I saw the stage play—I think it was 2006 or 2007 with Alison Pill and Jeff Daniels, and I had wanted to do it ever since then. I did do prep but didn’t do much research. A lot of it was stuff I already knew or I had people that I knew that I could look to. I didn’t talk to experts or anything like that. A lot of it to me felt pretty straightforward or common sense. It all really [intuitively] made sense to me.

We had a week before we started shooting where we’d sit down and read through stuff. And we read through a lot of dialogue just to get that down but we didn’t rehearse per se until on the day. [Then at that point] we got to rehearse a lot. By rehearse, I don’t mean go through it numerous amounts of times, but just figuring out what feels right. The blocking, talking about what the scene is, etc. We had a lot of time to be able to do that, we never felt like you’ve got to just rush it and get it on film. Like we always took the time to make sure we were feeling [it]. 

[When my character says, “am I too old?”], that was a really hard moment and scene and day to shoot. It took us a lot longer to figure out how to sort of not block or stage that than some of the other stuff. We struggled with that a lot, more so than I thought. It seemed very straightforward to me [first]. And then we did it and we couldn’t really find what felt right. It’s gut-wrenching.

[Ruby Stokes and I didn’t get to spend a lot of time together beforehand]. We didn’t have that much time, but she was there a few days in the rehearsal process. I had a lot of video of her that I could watch. And she recorded all my lines for me because I was trying to match her dialect. So even though I didn’t really spend much time with her, her voice was in my head every day.

Ben Mendelsohn on the complexity of playing a disgraced sex offender

I have a very definite idea, from reading behavioral materials about what eyes do and what different positions of [eye movement] mean if you’re looking at someone else. So I do have a notion of that. What we found in the playing of it was, he can’t look at her. He just cannot meet the intensity of the question being asked of him. The reality from [another] time and place is now [in front of him with] this person right here, right now. I think there is something he cannot meet.

 I think the main thing I wanted [Ray], whatever name he’s going by, is to have the sense of conviction and being plausibly convincing. That’s the most important thing. It’s very likely that he sees himself as the victim of this attraction. There is a world in which when you hear people that are accused of crimes describe their experience of them [as if they are the victims]. I’m fairly sure that he’s got a space in him where he feels [this way].

Benedict Andrews on what sets Una apart from Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita.

The book [and also the] Kubrick film are ‘comedies’. And they’re kind of about the folly of the situation but from the older male’s point of view and through demonizing the young woman. Whereas this is about the perspective of the young woman, grown up, looking back. So in a way it’s a shift in the perspective. This answers that by being from the other way round. This is very far from being a comedy.

Benedict Andrews on how below-the-line crafts helped visualize the emotional feel of the film

Everything in a film like this has signification. There is nothing that’s not going to be read. What type of guy is he? Is she dressing for him? Why did she wear that? But also, it’s the same with the young Una in the 90s. Steven Noble designed the costumes and we were getting notes from funding bodies like, “Are those clothes too young on her?” If you’re 12 years old, you can look 16 or you can look 9. The audience plays emotional detectives throughout the film.

What I loved about the play was that we’re trapped in this lunchroom after dark, with these two people. And I also loved a line in the play that’s not in the film, where she says, “What do you even do here?” It’s one of those buildings that you drive past and it’s just a box by the highway with the temperature on the outside. This man, who’d been kicked out of the community of men, has invented a new life and hidden inside this box.

With the production designer Fiona Crombie, we wanted to emphasize this very harsh contrast between these industrial minimalist boxes that they pursue each other through and the raw feelings that they’re working through. Particularly when they are in a town when it all happened. They are in this special town on this English Coast with no trees, very flat. And that contrast with this sort of post-industrial workplace and the anonymity of that. There was also a sense that it was like a labyrinth that they were pursuing each other through. There was real garbage that had been in the room while we were shooting it and it really stunk. Resetting the garbage [for reshoots of a particular scene] was sort of near impossible, so it was very spontaneous. It was [Rooney Mara’s] Pina Bausch moment.

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Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.