Una review: A troubling conversation about sexual abuse

The two leads just about make this stagey duologue about a past crime work

Film Title: Una

Director: Benedict Andrews

Starring: Rooney Mara, Ben Mendelsohn, Riz Ahmed, Ruby Stokes, Tara Fitzgerald, Natasha Little

Genre: Drama

Running Time: 94 min

Thu, Aug 31, 2017, 05:30

   

The greater part of this troublesome film is taken up with conversations between a grown woman and the man who sexually abused her when she was just 13. Not that he would describe it that way. Whatever the law may say, Ray (Ben Mendelsohn) thinks it worth pointing out that Una (Rooney Mara) “consented”. He claims that there was no grooming involved. He has never repeated the offence. These are arguments that thinking people have learned to disregard.

Una, derived from a play by David Harrower (not something you’re allowed to forget), is thus asking quite a bit of its audience. Much of Ray’s dialogue will have the social media user reaching inwardly for the “block” button. Una’s hugely uneasy conflict – she may still have feelings for Ray – risks further alienating even the most compliant viewer. Who wants these conversations?

The two performances at the film’s core have enough curious angles to keep us hooked on the characters’ squalid negotiations. Mendelsohn has long ago mastered the art of folding pathos in with the potentially sinister. Ray, who has served time, is certainly shouldering some guilt, but he also works hard at daily rationalisation. If you want somebody to play emotionally deadened, Mara is the first person you’re likely to phone. They just about make it work.

The film’s more stubborn problem derives from its conspicuous theatrical origins. The source was originally a two-hander and that really shows. We begin with Una tracking down Ray – now called Pete – at a bland warehouse in some unglamorous corner of England. They consider how he picked her up and how they attempted to flee the country. No screenwriter, constructing an original script, would indulge in such lengthy and mannered discussion of a past event without allowing us a comprehensive flashback. The film does drift back to the earlier incident (with an excellent Ruby Stokes playing the young Una), but those scenes are merely brief illustrations for the continuing duologue.

In adapting his own piece, Harrower has given lines to a few circling characters, but they feel like half-formed concoctions, knocked up to justify the story’s presence on a cinema screen. Riz Ahmed is wasted as Ray’s colleague. Tara Fitzgerald is barely present as Una’s mum. The wilfully drab middle-English surroundings do little to expand action beyond the scene dock.

Still, Una definitely nags away at you. It pokes you in the side. It pinches your ear. Worth enduring once. But that should do it.