UNA. Directed by Benedict Andrews. Written by David Harrower. Starring Rooney Mara, Ben Mendelsohn, Ruby Stokes, Riz Ahmed, Tara Fitzgerald. Produced by Westend Films and Film 4 Productions. Australian rating: M (mature themes, sex and coarse language). Running time: 94 minutes.
Like the recent Australian film Don’t Tell, Una is about the sexual abuse of children and the long term effects of this primal betrayal of trust. But where Don’t Tell (based on real events in Queensland) sees healing in public shaming and the judicial system, Una throws the viewer into a disconcertingly ambivalent world where the innocence of the victim is questioned, along with attempts to reform offenders.
Adapted by Australian director Benedict Andrews from David Harrower’s acclaimed play Blackbird, the story of Una is about a girl who was seduced by her adult neighbour when she was about twelve or thirteen, and fifteen years later stalks him mercilessly both at work and at home.
Using clever camerawork and flashbacks, we first encounter the young girl (played by Ruby Stokes) sitting on a bench beneath a tree in the front garden of her middle class home. A car in the driveway next door has its bonnet up, and we know immediately by her demeanour that Una senses that she is being watched, and is titillated by this attention.
Una rises from her seat under the tree and with a calculated glance over her shoulder, walks to a cabin at the back of the garden. To the film viewer, expectation and mystery surrounds her actions, then after a quick sighting of her child’s cleavage, this unsettling scene dissolves, and we are confronted by another Una (Rooney Mara), many years later, searching for sex in the anonymity of a night club and finding it in the guise of a man who from the back of his head, looks in blurred fashion much like her childhood seducer, Ray (Ben Mendelsohn).
Una is not a film for those uncomfortable about confronting the notion of sexuality in children, pubertal or not. But this is the film’s intention, to make us aware of what happens when adults, for their own needs, tamper with the minds and bodies of vulnerable children.
Una is damaged, emotionally unhinged by what Ray did to her as a child, and the chaos that this causes in the lives of both characters is enacted by Rooney Mara and Ben Mendelsohn with great power. Ray has served time in prison for his crime, but Una searches him out first in his workplace and later at home, her need to confront him a consequence of misplaced love and a burning desire for revenge.
Filmically, the most potent statement of the ‘ordinariness’ of Ray’s crime against Una is reflected in the empty spaces of the factory where Ray works as a supervisor. Devoid of people and much like a stage, the uniformity of the change room with its rows of identical lockers and the commonplaceness of the tea room with its tables and sink, are in stark contrast to both the irregularity of what happened to Una as a child, and the sense of shame and betrayal she still feels but cannot understand.
Ambiguity haunts the film, from Ray’s efforts to put the past behind him to Una’s burgeoning sexuality and whether she ‘asked for it’, and there are moments in the film where Una becomes a drama in its way as daring and risqué as Nabakov’s Lolita.
But here the comparison with Lolita fails. With its sharp focus on the dire psychological consequences of underage seduction, Una, thanks to Andrews’ skilled direction and the major players’ powerful realism, makes it very clear that the sexual abuse of children will never be morally acceptable, whatever the child’s age.Jan Epstein is an associate for the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.