The first attempt of director Benedict Andrews into the forays of fictional drama comes with the film adaptation of David Harrower’s play “Blackbird”. Andrews, whose experience comes mostly from filmed theatre, brings us Una, the story of a woman who confronts her much older ex-lover/abuser, who had sex with her when she was 13.
This is no Lolita, though certain parts certainly allude to it. Present day Una (Rooney Mara) seems to have been irremediably damaged not by the pedophilia per se, but for having been abandoned straight after sex. She looks for Ray/Peter (Ben Mendelsohn) to, at the same time, accuse him and seduce him, ask for questions and deny importance to the answers. The past story is told by flashbacks, where we see young Una (Ruby Stokes) developing a relationship with Ray, her father’s friend and neighbour, but all the sexual abuse is off-screen, made explicit only by Mara’s voice.
The strong potential of such a story is obvious, even more during a time when we seem to be surrounded by sexual assault cases and the meaning of consent is discussed over and over, but Una fails to deliver by, in one hand, trying to be more than it is, and on the other, failing to follow with its essence. Though the actors are great on screen – Mendelsohn with perhaps the hardest part, to make a pedophile look sympathetic – the way the narrative is shot does little to engage the audience. The flashbacks become repetitive; the choice of shots is dubious; there is no visual flare, or command of the cinematic language. It’s little more than filmed theatre, and even as such, not a particularly enjoyable one.
But perhaps our biggest peeve with Una is the story itself. Even ignoring the fact that ends up on old tropes (the crazy ex-girlfriend, the bunny boiler, the man who goes buy cigarettes and disappears, the woman who becomes a nymphomaniac because of a broken heart) there’s so much superfluous subplot – the factory workforce cut-outs and Una’s mother, both adding little to nothing to the narrative – that the main story just floats around. The scenes between Una and Ray at the factory go from 8 to 800 in seconds, with no justification. There seems to be no goal to Una (what did she want from confronting Ray, after all?) and Ray just goes from being scared by her to get involved again.
Still, the actors’s performances salvage Una, who can now be enjoyed in the comfort of your own house. With a running time close to 90 minutes, the film is an easy watch (despite its topic), though for a more incisive take on the topic, Kubrick’s adaptation of Nabokov’s classic or, even, Todd Field’s Little Children will do the trick.
Una is out on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK on 8th January 2018.