HIFF Review: Una

Reviewed By Lesley Coffin. (Part of coverage of the Hampton International Film Festival)

Stage and screen are two very different mediums, despite Broadway’s recent trend towards adapting films. We’ve seen far too many fails…and even more frequently, stage to screen adaptions which so rarely capture their predecessor’s impact. Stories which fit so beautifully on the stage which ultimately simply can’t be translated as well to the screen. What is forgiven on stage, as the physical limitations of live theater, are not so easily forgiven when applying the magic of film.

One of the most significant differences between screen and stage is, of course, the approach to acting applied. Stage requires a power, a bigness, to translate the most intimate moments to the entire audience. Screen acting almost always requires a subtle, light touch to convey the emotions. The new film Una, a UK production directed by theater director Benedict Andrews (making his film debut) is based on the recent stage hit Blackbird. And to its credit, the approach taken to bring the play (much of it remaining intact) to the screen is to stress the power of that intimacy the only film allows. Intimacy between the character’s relationship, but also between the audience and the story. Rather than the angry, volatile work performed on stage in Blackbird, Una is powerful because of that quiet stillness gave to this interpretation.

Una opens with the title character at home…still thinking about Ray, the man who once lived next door. As a 13-year-old Una and Ray had a sexual encounter which devastated the now adult Una (played by Rooney Mara), because of the confusing feelings that 13-year-old girl played by Ruby Stokes) had for Ray. As a child, she interpreted his feelings for her as sincere love, which leaves Una in the present day completely inability to truly move on. It is a far more interesting (perhaps even likely) interpretation of how someone that was the victim of a statutory rape would come to feel about the experience. Someone overwhelmed by the confusion of so many emotions.

As for Mara’s performance, she once again proves that with her unique poise and stillness on screen (demonstrated so beautifully in last year’s Carol and the highly underrated Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) she brings far more emotional depth than if she were asked to say and do much more. While she does very little, the emotions which move across her face say far more about the fury of concussions she’s feeling when she comes face to face with Ray. As for the decision to change the name, Una isn’t only the main focus (a smart decision to immediately align the audience with the victim), but the film is also very much told from her perspective. Both she and the audience are trying to understand the nature of Ray.

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Ray, played by Ben Mendelsohn, is a more than a capable acting partner for Mara, bringing a whole new interpretation of this pedophile; an undeniably risky role for an actor to take. In a character who on stage has often been played as outright intimidating, Mendelsohn gives Ray an initial sense of goodness which is ultimate all the more troubling. His unassuming, suburban dad quality, the overwhelming sense of nice “decency” he projects, makes you at once question how this could be that criminal, and reminds you that such unassuming people have the power to win trust from girls like Una. As it becomes more evident that his “feelings” for Una were “real,” despite being wrong, there is something even more unnerving as the film goes on. Suddenly the audience, while never asked to question the wrongness of Ray’s actions, we are constantly questioning his motives and ability to reform. Like his performance in last year’s Mississippi Grind, Mendelsohn once again proves he’s one of Hollywood’s most consistently engaging and compelling performers.

The film’s cinematic changes are minimal but frequently effective (the editing and score work especially well in this intimate drama). There are few big changes made to the text, specifically related to the inclusion of more characters (including Riz Ahmed and Tobia Menzies as two colleagues) and the inclusion of flashbacks. The film chooses to change locations, a decision which not only expands the world once limited by the theater stage but allows Andrews to stress Una’s changing emotional state with physical space. While those emotions had to be signified through theatrical acting choices in the play, the visual interpretations added to the film allows Mara and Mendelssohn to keep their performance all the more internal.

As for the flashbacks, a number of them are truly remarkable additions to the powerful drama. Young Ruby Stokes is an ideal choice for play a younger Una, and to observe her interplay with Mendelsohn shows the strength of his performance all the more. The stomach-churning experience of observing what is both sweet and inappropriate about their relationship up-close (although never seeing sexual interaction) with the knowledge of the aftermath makes a massive impact on the audience, sitting through these scenes as if witnesses.

In the play, Una and Ray often come across with an acidic, unlikable quality which keeps audiences at a distance, even while compelled. The strength of Andrews decision with bringing the film to the screen using the natural intimacy film allows and having Mara and Mendelsohn play into that to invite empathy for their characters while confronting the lasting damage caused by this crime. Una is an undeniably hard movie to sit through, but one well worth the experience.

Lesley Coffin: Is editor and founder of Movies, Film, Cinema. A writer with a masters degree from NYU’s Gallatin School in biographical studies and star theory. She wrote the biography on Lew Ayres (Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector) and Hitchcock’s Casting (Hitchcock’s Stars). Lesley currently freelances as a critic and interviewer for a number of sites, including regular contributions to The Interrobang, Pink Pen, and Young Folks, and previously wrote for The Mary Sue and Filmoria. (Twitter handle @filmbiographer, website lesleycoffin.com)

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