I saw 10 films at the London Film Festival and while I have a lot to say about many of them, that will come later in its own time. Today I want to talk about the film that has stayed in my head since the moment I saw it, Una.
Una is directed by Benedict Andrews, starring Rooney Mara, Ben Mendelsohn, and Ruby Stokes and is adapted from the play by David Harrower. It bears the aura of being adapted from a stage play, as many such adaptations do. However I don’t feel that this is necessarily a bad thing. One of my favourite films of all time bears this same aura and it’s that which makes David Hugh Jones’ Betrayal so special. But back to Una. Benedict Andrews is a long-time theatre director just now making his first film. What strikes you straight away is that this doesn’t have the shy, mannered feel of a first film. It could just as well have come from a director with 20 blockbusters under his belt. Although this is due in large part to the three key performances that hold the film.
Rooney Mara plays a woman, Una, who has come to confront, or maybe even simply see, the man with whom she had a relationship with, be it sexual, loving or abusive 15 years earlier. Over the course of an hour and a half the two dig up the past, going over what happened between them and what went wrong. The question of right and wrong is almost totally ignored as the film focuses in on the emotions between the two. The film opens on the young Una going in search of something or someone and cuts before we see what she does. Fifteen years and some exposition later we see who she’s looking at in a sweeping long shot that starts on Rooney Mara’s defiant yet vulnerable face, zooming out to show her standing in a warehouse, dressed to impress before swinging round to Ben Mendelsohn, Ray, whose face bears the absolute lack of composure of someone who has seen their own demons brought to life. There is no cut, no shot reverse-shot. Their meeting is a strong and shared moment that fills the immense space in time and the physical warehouse space chosen for the film.
This is Andrews’ touch of genius, to have transformed a stage play that takes place in a single room into a winding story of spaces and windows and the opaque. The young Una (Ruby Stokes) waits behind a glass pane for Ray to return. Now Ray shoves her into a break room to talk in private, compartmentalising the situation. Yet the break room is made of glass walls and so their drama has to play out in words alone so that it won’t be seen. In a demonstration of a continuous rebellious personality in Una she refuses to sit and wait, in either case. She walks the empty streets as a child and the towering warehouse structures looking for Ray, looking for the one simple answer. One of the few lines spoken by Ruby Stokes as the young Una is to ask Ray why he left and it’s this question that she still wants to ask now. As a child she could never have the answer, the question is asked to Ray through a television screen and so any real communication has been blocked off, once again, by a pane of glass. Here Ray can hear and see her but she has nothing. They get close to communicating when they are forced into hiding in dark rooms, finding once again the codes and habits of how they used to relate to each other Later in the film the two share genuine intimate insights while physically divided by a cubicle wall. We know there is something between them but we don’t see the wall, the frame stays just on their faces and they seem to talk to each other properly for the first time. As much as seeing each other rendered them speechless, not seeing seems to allow them to talk.
This is not to say that everything is resolved. The best that can be said is that a void that lasted Una’s whole life has been filled, at least to her satisfaction. What truly happened between them, truth or lie, right or wrong, remains unknown. Ray’s life and behaviour is certainly no more stable, but this isn’t his story, this is about Una, who, after years of searching, finally walks away.