Review: 'Una' Starring Rooney Mara And Ben Mendelsohn

Ray (Ben Mendelsohn) would never say he sexually abused anyone. He spent four years in jail for it, moved away and changed his name to Pete over it, but no...he didn't take advantage of a 13-year-old girl. The rationalizations he makes we've heard before; that he loved her, that she consented...they're tired and used up excuses but to him they're real.  He's a sexual offender, guilty as sin. And Una, in its own disturbing, uncomfortable way, asks us to root for him. Maybe just a little.

Una could be described as a love story, after a fashion. The film begins with an eager young girl in a backyard, hopefulness beaming in her eyes. Cut to an older woman quietly making her way through a crowded nightclub; she has anonymous sex then departs silently for home. She has work, but blows it off when a picture stirs something in her mind. It's clear the young girl we saw in the beginning and this young woman are the same, Una (Rooney Mara), and she needs some answers. When she arrives at the warehouse where Ray works, he instantly recognizes her, and not in a good way. He tries to pretend she's someone else, but no dice. He doesn't want to revisit this dark corner of his life, but there are 15 years of guilt, anger, and unfulfilled promises and it needs to be settled.

Based on David Harrower's award-winning stageplay, directed for the screen by Benedict Andrews, Una is a film that demands a lot from its audience. For there is clearly the grotesque suggestion that something still exists between Una and Ray. That will be too much for some to handle, as he pleadingly makes his case to her why there was no abuse ("There was no grooming!"), and she indulges his presence without kicking him in the groin or something. Because that's what we want her to do, right? To get revenge for what he did to her all those years ago? Well, what if she doesn't want to? What if she still wants what was taken away from them by the court system, her parents, and society?

It's a disquieting suggestion, but fascinating to watch unfold. With every thorny conversation your stomach may tie into knots, and as they settle into some semblance of normalcy you may even forget the circumstances of their reunion. But it will come roaring back, and you may hate yourself for wanting to see Una and Ray reunited, even for a moment. Una is a film of shifting allegiances, as Mara and Mendelsohn's captivating performances pull you over to their side. Mendelsohn has always played affable characters with a sinister edge, and he makes Ray a guy you both like and are disgusted by. Mara has never been the most animated, expressive actress, keeping her emotions checked behind a mask of passivity. It's always worked for her and it's employed to lethal effect here, as Una's unpredictability keeps Ray (and us) totally off-balance.

If there's a problem it's in Harrower's expansion of the source material. Originally penned as a two-hander, Harrower has filled in the spaces with a series of superfluous characters (played by Riz Ahmed, Tobias Menzies, and others) that aren't remotely developed. In the case of Ahmed's character, one of Ray's co-workers, his presence only serves to muddy our perception of Una, turning her into more of an antagonist than I think Harrower intended. There's such a fine love/hate balancing act the film walks for so long, the final act goes just slightly off the rails as a result. But no matter how unsettling Una can be, the corrosive connection it depicts is too compelling to ignore.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5