TIFF 2016 Review: Una
There seems to be an epidemic of films that like to pretend they’re some sort of stark, serious work of art that should be treated as such because of their formal qualities. By taking on the visual traits of older, better art films, usually putting an emphasis on precision in cinematography, editing, and/or sound, these films must be highly regarded, intellectual works, despite the fact that almost no substance exists beneath their rigid surfaces. Benedict Andrews’ debut feature Una turns out to be another one of these hollow husks of “Serious Art,” a stage adaptation that tries and fails to command attention away from its tired, dull tackling of a grim subject matter.
It starts with the titular Una (Rooney Mara), a woman in her mid-20s still living with her parents at her childhood home. She heads out for the day, lying to her mother and boss about her whereabouts, and drives to a warehouse in a different city. She starts asking around for Ray (Ben Mendelsohn), but learns from one of the workers (Riz Ahmed) that he now goes by the name Peter. As this first act gradually reveals, when Una was 10 years old Ray molested her, and after seeing his photo in an article Una decides to confront him about what he did to her. Once they meet, Una becomes an elongated back and forth between the two, taking place all night over several different locations.
Andrews adapted Una from screenwriter David Harrower’s play Blackbird, and the overly staged, unnatural qualities that come with transferring the stage to screen come out in full force. Mara and Mendelsohn have both given some excellent performances over the years, and here they try their best but can’t overcome the mannered nature of the dialogue. Mara veers between fury and affection towards Ray, and Mendelsohn tries to add some dimension to his character by showing (seemingly) sincere feelings of affection for Una. But the dialogue reeks of a staged quality that neither actor can escape from, and Andrews doesn’t know how to handle filming lengthy conversations in one location, mishandling tonal changes and positioning the actors in a way that gives the camera an excuse to move. For a film about a heated confrontation, Una displays little dynamism.
Without any energy from its material, Una turns into a slog, a dour two hander between actors who deserve better. So with nothing more to Una than an attempt to unsettle viewers by watching perpetrator and victim reunite into a mess of emotions, what else is there? Andrews uses cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis, who worked on Dogtooth and The Lobster, to give his film a look that’s similar to both of those films, and while it’s pleasing on the eye, it feels too obvious in its intent, as if its wants viewers to be aware of its impressive compositions rather than see how it links to the content. The same goes for Nick Fenton’s editing, which uses smash cuts and match cuts in a way that only calls attention to itself. By dealing with a topic as sensitive as child abuse, Una posits itself as something complex when in reality it’s much more simple than that; it’s a chance to show off for everyone involved.