Una sometimes fails to strike a logical balance, especially when it comes to its protagonist’s emotions.
Film adaptations of works made for the stage pose many obstacles, not least of which is how to turn a one-set play into a movie that stays true to its source while adeptly expanding and enriching it. Una brings David Harrower’s Blackbird to the screen, attempting to breathe life into the timely story of a victim confronting her abuser years later. The caustic environment of his workplace serves as an invaluable reflection of the emotions at hand, but director Benedict Andrews wants to give us an even bigger picture of past events and these two people, ideally without sacrificing that claustrophobic tension. In some ways, he succeeds, but this version casts even more doubt on the title character, making audiences question her desire to face her abuser and encouraging ambiguity around her mental state and intentions.
From the opening scene, which introduces the audience to Una (Rooney Mara) as a tripped out club-goer who has a brief sexual encounter with a stranger in the bathroom, the film colors the audience’s expectations. She immediately reads as both a troubled and loose character. When she very purposefully sets out the next morning to arrive at a warehouse and ask for Ray (Ben Mendelsohn), who now goes by Peter, her intentions are a complete mystery. From Ray’s standoffish response, accusingly asking what she is doing there, and reference to a picture in a news article that helped Una locate him, a vague history begins to form. Fifteen years earlier, the two were neighbors, and although Una was 13 and Ray significantly older, they became involved. Initially, Una seems to have come here to accuse her abuser of having stolen her life; she envies Ray for his new name and new life, while she remains stuck in her same childhood bedroom in the same small town, where everyone knows her history. But this spiteful response gives way to flashbacks of her crying out, “I love you, Ray” during the trial and exhibiting abandonment issues in the present. She says he targeted her, then she pleads to know why he left. While the seeming contradiction may appear confusing, it aptly conveys a tortured soul.
On the one hand, Una can’t be said to distort Harrower’s material into something it’s not, because he also wrote the screenplay. The process of expanding the film beyond the immediate tension of Una tracking down Ray, however, more often diffuses that very tension. Rather than remaining trapped in the stark, sterile warehouse where Peter works and grappling with the effects of their actions 15 years ago, the audience is allowed a reprieve in the form of flashbacks and sidebars that attempt to show us how these characters live now, for better or worse. One can’t help but wonder if both characters and performances would have benefitted from a more unabashedly dramatic approach. Doubly interesting is how Andrews favors impressionistic flashbacks in the first act, essentially giving these vague memories of Una’s childhood an idyllic, nostalgic feel. It’s not until the flashbacks begin to actively tell the story of what happened that they become dark and suspenseful.
Mara, in the role originally played by Jodhi May, brings her trademark stoicism to the fore, fueling Una’s ambiguity yet unfortunately stifling some of her rage. The intriguing portrayal lends itself to an interpretation of Una as calculating and vengeful, with more tunnel vision than her scattered emotions would indicate. Mendelsohn, for his part, grapples with the uncertain reality of his character: is Ray a pedophile or did he truly love a girl who just happened to be 13? The question is moot, regardless of the play’s tendency to allow for empathy for an abuser. In expanding the play, the film has these two run around the entire warehouse hiding from the Ray’s co-worker, Scott (Riz Ahmed), and boss, Mark (Tobias Menzies). These scenes seem to illustrate that Una and Ray’s relationship must be kept hidden, but instead create bizarre moments in which a resentful Una, in the middle of berating her abuser, finds herself in the same lowly, skulking position as Ray.
Even though Blackbird feeds on some seeming contradictions in its characters’ actions, Una sometimes fails to strike a logical balance, especially when it comes to Una’s emotions. The sexual encounter that opens the film and Una’s manipulation of Scott muddle our interpretation of the original material. While Harrower’s intention may have been to show the effects of past experiences on Una’s relationship with sex, her ability to manipulate and coerce even further calls into question her intention to confront Ray. The reasons are likely unclear to Una herself, but Harrower and Andrews allow for so many varying interpretations that her actions are in danger of becoming devoid of true purpose at all. Such ambivalence drains the story of its potential dramatic power.