David Harrower’s Blackbird is a self-sustaining, perfect little machine: a two-handed, single location play that sees a woman named Una track down Ray, the middle-aged man who lured her into a sexual relationship back when she was a child.
Indeed, so precise and taboo-shattering is the work that one could be forgiven for approaching Una, a new cinematic adaptation directed by first-time filmmaker Benedict Andrews, with caution. What’s the point of transferring a play that works precisely because of its subtlety into a medium that requires everything to be seen and actualised?
At first, Una seems to confirm these worries. Rather than convey the bulk of the plot through monologues as in the play, the film is packed with flashbacks, allowing us to watch the ‘relationship’ between the young Una (Rooney Mara) and Ray (Ben Mendelsohn) unfold. Indeed, large chunks of dialogue have been completely exorcised in the process of adaptation (Harrower himself wrote the script for the film), shifting the focus away from the central characters’ struggles with memory and directly onto the connection between them.
But quite quickly this alteration reveals itself to be a strength rather than a weakness. Una is not Blackbird, but nor does it want to be, and it exhibits none of the staginess that lets down some theatre-to-cinema adaptations. Instead, Una is a vicious, beautiful masterwork – a delicately controlled assemblage of alternately disturbing and stunning set pieces that aims to challenge our notions of love, commitment and fidelity.
Una was always going to live or die on the strength of its performances, and Mara and Mendelsohn are exceptional. Although the former’s stiff, affected English accent is occasionally a little off-putting, she is nonetheless an electric screen presence, and allows her wide, staring eyes to do much of the work for her.
For his part, Mendelsohn is dependably brilliant, and he does a lot with a character that could have become nothing but a creepy old pervert in the hands of a lesser actor.
Yet picking apart individual strengths seems counterproductive. Una is not a film of specific moments – there is no scene where one element works to overpower all others. Instead, the film is a fugue. It does things to you the longer that you watch it, gradually turning your critical faculties inwards until you are challenging things that you may well have preferred not to challenge.
It is not an easy film. But the well-prepared and the willing will find it truly remarkable – a tragedy, troublingly filmed as though it were a love story.
Una was reviewed as part of Sydney Film Festival 2017. It opens in cinemas on Thursday June 22.