Successful art, questionable entertainment.

Una is an unfamiliar movie. On the surface, it sounds like a well-worn revenge picture, the kind where a woman turns the tables on her (usually male) aggressor by finding him and exacting the kind pain he inflicted on her. Movies like I Spit on Your Grave (1978) and Death Proof (2007) focus on the brutality of the attack and the consequences, before finishing with a cathartic, equally brutal revenge. It’s a simple structure and offers the audience a thrill, someone to sympathise with, and something to cheer at the end. Una gives its audience none of these things, stewing instead over the repercussions and exploring the complex dynamic between victim and perpetrator.

Reputable theatre director Benedict Andrews directs playwright David Harrower’s two-player chamber piece with Rooney Mara and Ben Mendelsohn, for his cinematic debut. Mara plays Una, whom we first see alone in a strobe-heavy club. After some rough bathroom sex, she’s at home in the morning dismissing her mum with a teenager’s affect, mumbling as she leaves the house about when she’ll be home. Armed with a picture from a magazine, she’s off to visit Ray at the factory where he works at a mid-level management position. She learns from Scott (Riz Ahmed) that the man she recognises in the picture is now named Peter. Una knows the man in the picture because he molested her for several months when she was thirteen years old (we learn this through flashbacks, with Ruby Stokes playing a young Una).

What follows is a series of tense interactions, full of silent beats, in the heavily shadowed factory. Ray is just about to downsize a large number of his employees, but he botches the job and runs from room to room with Una, avoiding his co-workers.

Una, 2017.

Andrews is a visually striking director. Relishing in the cinematic medium, he uses light and shadow to an exaggerated degree, sometimes filming entire dialogue scenes with Ray’s face blackened in shadow, his presence a disembodied voice speaking to Una. The film is often shot at skewed angles — you’ll want to grab the camera and put the frame right, if only to make things a little more familiar. The unsettling atmosphere resembles an uncomfortable dream, in which everyone seems to know something you don’t. There’s a strong distancing effect at play here, as if Andrews doesn’t want his audience to connect with either of the characters. We sympathise with Una because she’s the victim, but we don’t know what she wants.

Rooney Mara, with an impressive British accent, understands her character more intimately than the audience, consistently holding us at arm’s length. Letting us catch only glimpses of who she is outside of the events that shaped the life she’s now trapped in, she reads lines like, “I hate the life I’ve had to live” with guarded clarity. Mendelsohn’s character, aware of his wrongdoing but convinced that he’s not “one of them” (a paedophile) is desperate to put the past behind him.

All of the film’s parts, its restrained performances, Thimios Bakatakis’s shadowy cinematography, Jed Kurzel’s darkly ambient score, create such an alienating film where, occasionally, its effects work against it. Long stretches of sparse dialogue both build towards something while also remaining stagnant. Even as the disgruntled co-workers roam the factory with flashlights searching for Ray, there’s little sense of danger, and because we don’t know what Una wants, we’re not sure what to anticipate. Even in the film’s third act, when the setting changes and the stakes are raised, we’ve been held at a distance for so long that it feels unnatural to get involved.

Rooney Mara as Una, Una, 20117.

Una is a peculiar film which offers the victim’s perspective in a way I’ve not seen it before. It’s a refreshing deviation from the shallow revenge fantasy, and it boasts a magnificent actress’ finest performance to date. The alienating effect is likely to leave viewers cold, however, making the film a worthy piece of art, but a tricky piece of entertainment.

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