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The title change makes sense in Una, the film version of Scottish playwright David Harrower’s scorching drama, Blackbird. Onstage, this violent collision of past and present was an evenly balanced two-character face-off, unfolding in real time and in claustrophobic confinement. Opened out for the screen in the playwright’s resourceful adaptation, the chamber drama redirects its gaze to favor the perspective of its damaged female protagonist, while effectively heightening the stakes by revealing more of the precariously close outside world. The film has a different though no less riveting intensity, thanks to Rooney Mara’s emotionally naked performance in the title role, and unflinching support from Ben Mendelsohn.
The project marks an assured move into film for Benedict Andrews, an Australian theater director who works extensively in Europe; he staged Harrower’s widely produced play in its German-language premiere in Berlin. Having both a director and a screenwriter so familiar with the bones of the source material has allowed them to be quite free with its structure, at the same time magnifying its psychological and moral complexities. It’s one of the more intelligent stage-to-screen adaptations of recent years and should find receptive audiences among moviegoers open to challenging, provocative drama.
The situation is an explosive one. Fifteen years after a furtive, mutually intoxicating relationship during which she was 13 and he was well into his thirties, Una turns up unannounced to confront Ray at the English regional manufacturing plant where he holds a mid-level management position. The exposure of the relationship following their abortive flight together led to Ray being imprisoned for abduction and sex with a minor. Released after four years, he has changed his name and started a new life, but Una remains defined by the past and trapped by its unanswered questions: “Where did you go? Why did you leave me?”
An early scene shows Mara’s Una dancing, trance-like, beneath strobing lights before cutting to her having rough, anonymous sex in a club restroom. She then returns home in the early hours of the morning to the childhood bedroom she still occupies. That dichotomy between the adult and the girl is marked also as she prepares to see Ray, wearing the lipstick and heels of a more mature woman. But the character’s suspension in time is conveyed even more explicitly in frequent flashbacks to the three-month affair, which clearly have been playing on a loop in Una’s head for 15 years. Newcomer Ruby Stokes is terrific in those scenes as the younger character, straddling vulnerability and knowingness.
Andrews and editor Nick Fenton integrate those detours into the past fluidly within the main action, deftly transforming material that surfaced in monologues onstage into vivid memory that weighs heavily on the present for both principal characters. Witnessing the roots of the romance — Ray was Una’s neighbor and a friend of her father’s — is particularly effective in shining light on the dangerous mutual attraction, as are the secret codes they developed to arrange clandestine meetings.
In the heated present-day scenes, Una is still a confused girl focused on the abandonment wounds of the relationship’s abrupt end. But she’s also a shrewder woman, able to twist the knife of Ray’s guilt with a few well-chosen words. Her anger at the enduring stain on her life is palpable. Mara’s simmering performance is impressive in its negotiation of that tricky balance, never downplaying the active role of the naive, young Una in encouraging a liaison they both knew was wrong. Her acts of self-sacrificial seduction are also queasy and unsettling as she tests her enduring power over her former lover.
When he’s not surrendering to those overtures, Mendelsohn’s Ray, on the other hand, remains very much in containment mode. Self-righteously defensive, he claims, “I was never one of them,” distancing himself from serial pedophiles while pointing up the rough treatment he received in prison because of the charges.
In its tightened focus on the Una character, the film serves Ray less well than the play. In two New York productions nine years apart, Jeff Daniels memorably took on the role — opposite Alison Pill the first time, Michelle Williams the second — and was so thoroughly wrung out by the end of each performance that you wondered how he switched off after curtain calls. Mendelsohn as always is a compelling presence, and the stunned look in his haunted eyes when Una first appears at the factory speaks volumes. But the shifty role has been rendered largely reactive.
That said, the film gains in tension by contextualizing the encounter during a sensitive time for Ray at work, when structural changes are forcing him to select a handful of employees for retrenchment. His trusted foreman and friend, Scott (Riz Ahmed from HBO’s The Night Of), is under the misapprehension he’s on that list, creating additional friction. That character also serves as a pawn for Una late in the action, as she calculates a way to infiltrate Ray’s personal life. While his home and his sleek wife (Natasha Little) seem incongruously upscale for someone in Ray’s position with such a sketchy background, it gives him more to lose and makes the drama’s final-act reveal pack a punch.
Cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis (known for his work on Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth and The Lobster, as well as Ira Sachs’ Keep the Lights On) frames the action in striking though not overly mannered compositions, adopting more muted tones in the dreamlike returns to the past. Also effective is the needling score by Jed Kurzel, composer on The Babadook, and on his brother Justin’s films The Snowtown Murders and Macbeth.
In his divisive stage work, Andrews is very much a practitioner of director’s theater, eliciting bone-deep character probes from his actors but often with self-conscious stylistic flourishes that can seem intrusive to the text. (His recent production of A Streetcar Named Desire with Gillian Anderson was just such a mixed bag.) Those impulses are under control here, with notable payoff from his willingness to incorporate silences and give a scene breathing room. The direct echoes of his stage effects are generally on target, such as a jarring blast of PJ Harvey or a boxed-in glass staff lunchroom on the factory floor that closely resembles a theater set. But Una is very much a potent piece of cinema, and those unfamiliar with the play will be unlikely to detect its origins.
Venue: Telluride Film Festival; also in Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations)
Cast: Rooney Mara, Ben Mendelsohn, Riz Ahmed, Tara Fitzgerald, Natasha Little, Ruby Stokes, Tobias Menzies
Production companies: Jean Doumanian Productions, WestEnd Films, Film 4
Director: Benedict Andrews
Screenwriter: David Harrower, based on his play ‘Blackbird’
Producers: Jean Doumanian, Patrick Daly, Maya Amsellem
Executive producers: Kevin Loader, Eve Schoukroun, Sharon Harel, Aaron L. Gilbert, Jason Cloth, David Kosse, Sam Lavender, Celia Duval
Director of photography: Thimios Bakatakis
Production designer: Fiona Crombie
Costume designer: Steven Noble
Music: Jed Kurzel
Editor: Nick Fenton
Casting: Kahleen Crawford
Sales: WestEnd Films
No rating, 94 minutes
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