A subtle exploration of morality's grey areas with outstanding performances which unfortunately fails to leave a lasting impact.
Morality is a common theme in entertainment; often explored to reinforce existing moral code but sometimes thrown into question for the purpose of drama. Una is a film which attempts the later, simultaneously confusing the moral compass of both its characters and its audience.
The plot holds morality at its very centre. A young woman, the titular Una (Rooney Mara), confronts her darkened memories when she visits her significantly older childhood neighbour Ray (Ben Mendelsohn) in an attempt to provide closure to their illicit affair which occurred when she was only thirteen. But the moral perspectives it presents are handled objectively, never making a heroine of Mara’s Una, nor a villain of Mendelsohn’s Ray.
It is here that director Benedict Andrews’ debut film both succeeds and suffers. Making the transition between theatre and cinema alongside the material, Andrews appears to use all of his new medium’s elements early; almost as if over-enthused by the camera. Some scenes display an extravagant use of editing and camera movement, alongside a relatively out-of-place soundtrack choice during the opening, when simpler methods would have allowed the drama air. This does settle further in as it appears Andrews becomes more comfortable with the parallels between film and theatre drama, extending his takes and letting the two brilliant leads provide the goods. It is here that the film’s objectivity flourishes. A more theatrical approach in Una‘s second and third acts gives the audience the space to view without direction. At times this is difficult to watch, with the forbidden nature of what’s on screen portrayed with little sympathy or cynicism.
Such a tight rope between showing the two sides of a traditionally so one-sided affair works only as a result of the elegant performance of Mendelsohn. He is believable as an older man in love with a minor in the sense that he is completely believable as a real person. Such a truthful and visceral performance makes his forbidden love for Una significantly more disturbing. It is through this, however, that the film proves troublesome. It’s morality is so distant through the completely barren subjectivity that what the narrative is trying to say feels clouded. One might debate that it allows the film to say whatever its viewer wants it to, but it leads to a cold reaction.
Mara once again exemplifies her position as the queen of small drama through her understated performance as the titular character, but Andrews doesn’t give us the opportunity to use her for a surrogate, only adding to the coldness. The drama itself suffers as a result. It is strong but it doesn’t get as far as powerful, seemingly hard-hitting at the time but somehow forgettable post-viewing. Part of the expected impact fades with the frequent interjections of the Peter subplot, with characters searching for Ray after an important meeting is ruined by flashbacks brought on by Una’s presence. It seems insignificant alongside Una‘s primary concern and distracts from our understanding of the moral drama. Character is the films most vital aspect but is handled in a way which makes it difficult to completely relate to. Una’s love for Ray comes across unmotivated despite the fragmented memories which show its development. It is hard to know where her moralities lie and how they change, essentially undermining her overall purpose.
All being said, Una works in the moment. It tangles with your emotions causing an internal battle of empathy and expectation. A refreshing, albeit troubled, view of such a bleak subject matter can only be praised for its bravery in objectiveness and dedication to naturalism. Andrews’ first foray into film shows signs of a lack of experience but contains plenty to display his dramatic capabilities during the character driven scenes. Una is an exploration of morality’s grey area and, if nothing else, presents an interesting example of how cinema can conjure empathy and understanding for the worst of humanity whilst condemning them all the same.
Una (2017), directed by Benedict Andrews, is distributed in the UK by Thunderbird Releasing, certificate 15.