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Performance over substance

OUT NOW! UNA, might not be devastating or furiously engaging as its source material, but Rooney Mara and Ben Mendelsohn's performances make the price of admission worth it.

Twelve years after its debut at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, David Harrower’s award-winning play Blackbird makes it to the big screen. Retitled Una, it depicts the titular young woman (Rooney Mara) showing up unannounced at the workplace of a middle-aged man (Ben Mendelsohn), who we learn was convicted and served time for sexually abusing her 15 years ago. Thus begins a suffocating, dialogue-driven two-hander set almost exclusively in the warehouse where Ray – now known as Peter – works.

Benedict Andrew’s cinematic take can’t shake the drama’s inherent staginess, but the transition from stage to screen is solidly executed, thanks in large part to the screenplay, courtesy of the Scottish playwright himself. Harrower’s script affords Andrew’s film the same intensity and complex handling of the subject of paedophilia. It also gives the thespian duo some layered material to work with, as both Una and Ray can’t be reductively pinned down to predator/victim roles. Mendelsohn shines as the man whose past comes back to haunt him and deftly navigates Ray’s complexities, so we never fully condemn or warm to him. Meanwhile, Mara proves once again how much she can do with a single gesture, regardless of a slightly wobbly British accent. Both conjure up a deliberately uneasy chemistry that ensures the viewer is offered shifting perspectives and the luxury to question each characters’ motivations. Like the play, Una isn’t just a monochromatic story of sexual abuse, but a shaded tale of two tortured individuals who continue to rip open new wounds.

A shame, then, that the performances ultimately outshine their vehicle. Some flourishes don’t quite work (the relevant but on-the-nose inclusion of PJ Harvey’s “Down By The Water”, for instance), and the third act, which shakes things up by deviating from the play, tries too hard to up the ante by teetering on a Hard Candy edge. It culminates with an ambiguous finale which leaves us on a slight bum note. Still, while it might not be as devastating or as furiously engaging as David Mamet’s Oleanna (with which Blackbird shares some thematic and stylistic strands), Una remains an adaptation that is worth the price of admission for the performances alone.

Una (Una und Ray) | Directed by Benedict Andrew (UK, USA, 2016) with Rooney Mara, Ben Mendelsohn. Starts March 30.

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