Unsettling, is the word that comes to mind. The film drips with it: the austere silences, isolating cinematography, ambient swells cut against impatient mechanical rhythms. Director Benedict Andrews is not aiming for subtlety here – but he toes a dangerous line between artistic and overkill. Rooney Mara’s near-bipolar unpredictability – subdued and resigned one minute, fierce and provocative the next – hardly dilutes the film’s uncomfortable aesthetic. Only Ben Mendelsohn succeeds in toning down his familiar, gratuitous villainy; instead slipping into role of an unconvincingly remorseful, self-centred factory worker with apparent ease.
The nature of Una and Ray’s relationship is, for the most part, disturbingly familiar – a sad reflection on the overexposed child-abuse scandals that plague the modern world. Ruby Stokes does well to infuse the young Una’s wry confidence with a devastatingly desperate devotion to her older neighbour. Mara can be commended for capturing the aftershocks of Una’s abuse in her promiscuous, often childish, instability. Andrews’ desaturation of the colour palette, used to reinforce the dissipation of Una’s naïve, carefree youthfulness, is at best clichéd, and at worst, unnecessary.
Originally based on David Harrower’s play Blackbird, the writer works seamlessly with Andrews; matching the director’s uncomfortable ambience with provocative, unpredictable, and at times, chilling dialogue. The effects of Ray’s abuse resonate in Una’s immature, ever desperate interrogation – a far more nuanced and emotionally manipulative approach, where graphic images of their relationship would have demeaned the film’s integrity.
‘Can abuse victims ever completely reconcile with their abusers?’ – the film’s descent into lustful, bitter sex, interspersed with disturbingly normalised analepses and concluding with a pitiful portrait of the young Una, indicates not. But is this really news? Or does Andrews’ attempt at poignancy cede to the inherently destructive nature of child abuse? Or maybe UNA is just a manipulative, melodramatic approximation of an issue far too complex for the silver screen.
By Gabriel Jammy