THUNDERBIRD RELEASING (2017)
Director: Benedict Andrews
Starring: Rooney Mara, Ben Mendelsohn, Riz Ahmed, Ruby Stokes, Tara Fitzgerald, Natasha Little, Tobias Menzies
Adapted by debutant director Benedict Andrews from David Harrower’s original play Blackbird, Una strikes a blow with the taboo subject of child abuse and paedophilia. The titular character, played impeccably by Rooney Mara, has spent the last fifteen years of her life with the agonising memories and trauma caused by the abuse she suffered (aged thirteen) at the hands of forty-something Ray (Mendelsohn)
Flitting between searching for fulfilment in dingy clubs and her childhood bedroom at her mother’s house, Una is a woman carrying horrendous mental weight until one day she notices a familiar face in a newspaper.
Ray, now known as Peter having changed his name, spent four years imprisoned for grooming and having a sexual relationship with a minor. Now he has a middle-managers role at a factory in England (the movie is set in the country) where his co-workers seem to enjoy his friendly manner and likeability, is happily married and seemingly has his life back on track. Unfortunately for him, a company photograph was published in the newspaper, a paper read by Una. Shocked, confused and determined – she wants a showdown.
Arriving at his place of work, she is greeted by Scott (Ahmed), a friendly guy who is only too happy to help and is also one of Ray’s staff members and friends. Ray’s world comes crashing back down with a vicious, silent explosion as he lays eyes on the woman he had attempted to run away with years before and, because of his actions, had his world turned upside down.
Shutting themselves in the canteen, which looks eerily similar to a viewing area, the past comes back to the forefront and every ounce of agony is wrung dry.
Una focuses on the two people directly affected by the three-month past liaison and utilises flashbacks to effectively show the events of the past (young Una is played with astounding assurance by Stokes) In doing this, it shouts the hard-hitting truth that just because time passes, time is served and the act is complete, the problem and trauma do not go away. This is only amplified by the stark and bare performance of Mara who flits between mind-sets of trauma and revenge effortlessly, slinking towards her abuser whilst presenting him bluntly with the cold truth of what he did. Her vulnerable body language alone displays the full weight of the horror. Mendelsohn, also, is superb in his role – he portrays an unnervingly restrained man, one that’s moved on but the gravitas of the situation is burrowed across his face. His performance exudes sympathy and regret and only briefly leeches into anything more sinister. He isn’t a bad man here, but his past will never leave him.
The actors manage to convey the uneasy and unsettling emotions through dialogue and actions/expressions, without needing any major moments of heated arguments (one early spat aside) or OTT drama to really sell the ‘connection’ between them. Mendelsohn strains to be believed when he discussed the treatment he has received and his pleading tones resonate as he tells Una he was never one of “them”, his haunted eyes betraying his past actions. Mara throws her hate towards Ray verbally but is also harbouring childhood feelings for him and finds herself confused as to what she wants with him – at times asking “Why did you leave me?” defiantly yet full of pent-up rage and sadness. It’s clear that the psychological effects have left her trapped between her childhood and adulthood. The lines start to becoming ever-so-slightly blurred as opinions begin to shift, with flashbacks and her mentality possibly showing Una having greater agency than initially accepted. Riz Ahmed’s Scott is also lured into the proceedings, used as a pawn in the bigger game, though for an actor of his quality, he is slightly underused.
Throughout the movie there are metaphors aplenty, cleverly woven into scenes to further press home the tone and the psychological issues presented. As Una and Ray sit alone in a dark room, they are surrounded by stacks of closed boxes signifying the baggage carried and locked away. The factory setting is almost a maze they try to hide in, the dark corners providing cover for dark deeds. As mentioned previously, the canteen’s all glass appearance provides a cage for the two involved and for the rest of the world to look in on. It’s an intelligent device that closely resembles the original stage performance of the story. Any lurid act of paedophilia is shown via implied shots or images, though sexual tension does give way to action during the movie.
Una is an intelligent movie and a stark display of a taboo subject. Well directed and expertly acted, it is a thrilling and vicious account of unspeakable acts and of confronting the past by breaking the silence that builds around it.
August 1st 2017