David Harrower’s award-winning play Blackbird arrives on the big screen as Una. Scripted by Harrower himself, this British-Canadian-American co-production is a tightly wound psychodrama executed with steely precision.
In a way it’s a shame to reveal any of the plot because the opening scenes of Una are so intriguing and enticing. Much of the thrill comes from piecing together the relationships between the main characters. However, some kind of plot description is necessary, if only to entice people to see a film which well deserves a large audience.
We first meet Una (Rooney Mara), a withdrawn 28-year old who still lives with her mother (Tara Fitzgerald), in a nightclub. Dancing on her own, she hooks up for anonymous sex before returning home. We soon piece together that the 13-year old we see in other scenes is in fact a younger Una in flashback.
The adult Una goes to a large, remote office warehouse where she pays a surprise visit to a man she calls Ray (Ben Mendelsohn), although everyone there knows him as Peter.
Here, most of the action is played out, as Una confronts Ray about the events that took place 15 years ago, when they last saw each other and their illicit affair came to a sudden end.
For the most part, this is a very intense two-hander, and both Mara and Mendelsohn are superb. Riz Ahmed (also excellent) resurfaces a few times, eventually becoming an unwitting pawn in proceedings. Regular flashbacks are used to open up the narrative, preventing it from feeling like a filmed stage play, and also serve to fill in the unspoken exposition. The scenes in the present, although often claustrophobic, are never static. The action keeps shifting around the office space and eventually to other locations.
Australian director Benedict Andrews made a name for himself in theatre, most notably locally with his marathon Shakespeare cycle War of the Roses, which won six Helpmann Awards. His international successes include his staging of a German language Una in Berlin, and his National Theatre production of A Streetcar Named Desire, which technically became his first film release when it was screened in cinemas.
Clearly he works well with actors, having garnered great performances here. Mara has never been better in a complex role full of internal conflict, while Mendelsohn, whose entering a golden period in his career, goes full Mendo – which will please his growing number of fans.
Andrews uses sound to great effect, whether it be Jed Kurzel’s restrained score, or in the early scenes where, as the audience is still finding it’s feet, music will suddenly blast out and end just as abruptly.
We see most of the events from Una’s perspective, but the film is brave enough to explore both sides of the story and how both characters have effectively become victims of one kind or another.
This is a dark, quietly disturbing film which steadily ratchets up the tension while exploring increasingly murky moral waters. Never less than engrossing, this is an extremely well written and acted drama that marks an auspicious film debut for director Andrews.
Una is currently in limited release
Richard Leathem @dickiegee