Director: Benedict Andrews
Runtime: 94 minutes
If you’re going into Una unaware that it began life as a play, the film’s theatrical roots are self-evident during viewing. Based on Blackbird by David Harrower (who adapted his work for the screenplay), it’s a very talky production, where the action is mainly restricted in office rooms and there is little to no physicality. The focus of the play is the 15-year reunion between the sexually-abused and the abuser. Grand aspirations, but does what worked on stage feel natural on film? Structure means little on the stage. All that matters is the acting and dialogue. This is not strictly true on film.
Somewhere in England, Una (Rooney Mara) is a twenty-something woman who discovers the whereabouts of Ray (Ben Mendelsohn) – a former family friend who molested her at 13 – in the newspaper. He now goes by Pete, and works as the staff manger of an industrial warehouse. She shows up at his workplace, and he is alarmed, angry and even frightened by her unannounced visit. Ray wants Una to leave, telling her that he has done his time in jail, he’s happily married to a woman his age, and what he did to her was a one-time mistake he wants to forget. For the next hour and a half, Una explains to Ray that their time together has ruined her chances of having a normal life and experiencing intimacy.
The first half of Una makes for a compelling psychological drama. Director Benedict Andrews, making his first feature film, comes from a theatre background. He directs Una in a basic “filmed theatre” style but he opens up the play a bit. We witness the origins of the affair in multiple flashbacks (in which 13-year-old Una is played with potential by Ruby Stokes). Adult Una is a damaged person – at times she seeks revenge on Ray, and other times she’s convinced they’re still in love and expresses her feelings to him.
However, Una suffers from the same problems that affect many play-to-film adaptations: too much contrivance. In the present day, Ray has to abandon Una for an hour to take care of a crisis at work, and tells her to wait for him in the office – which she ignores. It’s unbelievable that Una can wander around in this factory, where every door is conveniently unlocked, and not draw the attention of surveillance or security (nothing about her clothing suggests she might be an employee). Supporting actor Riz Ahmed (The Night Of and Nightcrawler) is wasted here: he plays one of Ray’s employees who befriends Una and turns into a plot device in the film’s final act.
Fences, Carnage, and Doubt succeeded in their “filmed theatre” style because the dialogue was beautifully written and created tension. Unfortunately, the “big conversations” between Ray and Una have a staged nature that never sounds natural. Part of the problem may be Rooney Mara’s delivery – her English accent frequently slips.
Una is not one of the best stage-to-screen conversions, but it does feature emotionally-naked performances by Mendelsohn, Mara and Stokes. On a purely narrative level, it’s too contrived to work on a dramatic level. The film’s structure gets to the heart of why converting plays to film is not easy.