A tense, make-your-stomach-drop drama from director Benedict Andrews, Una is not an easy watch. You'll find your skin crawling, and your legs and arms crossed, physically recoiling from the modern-day version of Lolita too realistic for comfort unfolding on screen. You might even forget all about the big crush you have on your fave Aussie dad figure Ben Mendelsohn. The effect of Una is just that jarring.
The film tells the story of Una (Rooney Mara), a woman whose sudden reappearance threatens to destroy the life of Ray (Mendelsohn), a man who at first glance it seems she was once intimately involved with. But we soon pick up on the fact that "involved with" here means "sexually abused by". Una was 13 when Ray began a sexual relationship with her. Years later, she arrives at his workplace, come to confront him about the past.
In brief, disjointed moments of flashback we meet Una as a child, and Ray as a younger man who becomes obsessed with his neighbour's daughter, sexually abusing her through the guise of them "being in love". Back then, it all ended in a plan to run away to Europe, a single motel bed, abandonment, and a jail sentence. Years later, Ray (now "Peter") has rebuilt his life with a new job, a new wife, a new house, and a whole new identity.
Una? Not so. Still dealing with what was done to her as a child, she lives in the same house where it all happened, with a mother she's still failing to communicate with. The last time we see Una as a child, she's pleading with Ray via live video feed in a courtroom, asking him to come back, to make contact, and to tell her why he left her. The first time we meet her as an adult, she's having sex with a faceless man at a club and wandering home in the early morning, stuck in her anger and her past.
The film was adapted from Blackbird, a play by David Harrower, and its origins on the stage are clear to see. Una's musings to Ray, mostly within the confines of the lunchroom at his workplace, are delivered like monologues. Mara chews up and spits out the dialogue the way her character must have practised hundreds of times in the years since her abuse.
The film succeeds in what it sets out to do in part through its handling of the aspects of Una and Ray's past that, obviously, it can't actually show. A chill runs down your spine with each horrible moment left unseen; a close-up of two hands holding each other, or a long shot of a huge tree that obscures our view. Our imaginations run cold along with our blood. Mendelsohn is convincingly charismatic while bringing the requisite darkness to his role. Mara struggles a little in her attempts to pull off a British accent, but aside from that her performance is exceptional. The chemistry between the two is patently present, enough to make you shudder.
Una is one of those films that you can't stop watching, no matter how much you might want to; a tense, confined study of a paedophile that dares you to look away. Is Ray rehabilitated, trying to move on from the unforgivable actions of his past? Or is he still as sick and manipulative as ever? The film, and Mendelsohn, will leave you guessing.