Like Nobokov’s Lolita, Una is a lyrical tale of sexual abuse, a controversial account of a paedophilic relationship where the aggressor is allowed to justify his actions, and even claim an element of victimhood for himself. It’s deliberately provocative, designed to inspire conflicting emotions about a subject that’s usually painted in black and white.
It begins with a shuddering jump cut: a girl sits enjoying the evening sun on a driveway outside an unremarkable English suburban house. Then, in a flash, we’re in a sweaty nightclub where the same person, years later, is having sex with a stranger in a toilet cubicle.
This wordless opening three minutes is a brilliant bit of visual storytelling from director Benedict Andrews, here making his film debut after directing for the stage. Without a word of exposition, we're primed to suspect some deep-seated, unresolved trauma, and sure enough, the next day Una (Rooney Mara) sets off to confront her former neighbour, who abused her when she was 13 years old. Now working as a middle manager in a warehouse, Ray – or Pete as he’s taken to calling himself – was imprisoned for a few years before starting afresh in a new town. “I served my time,” he shouts indignantly. “I’m still doing mine,” she replies.
Based on the play Blackbird, performed on Broadway last year by Jeff Daniels and Michelle Williams, the film maintains a stagey quality, with much of the action unfurling in a grubby staff canteen (a scene in which Ray and Una spontaneously empty bins over the floor feels especially theatrical). But the structure is fleshed out by a series of intense scenes in which Una stalks the aisles of the warehouse, a primed hand grenade ready to explode Ray’s life. The back-story is told through hazy, lens-flare filled flashbacks, such as a lingering shot of the bushes behind which Ray abuses the girl.
It’s the poisonous chemistry between the two, however, that makes Una so unusually difficult to watch. After an initial, panicked stand-off, the two leads share moments of tenderness and wistful nostalgia, as if they’re long-lost lovers reminiscing about their past, and you occasionally have to remind yourself that he’s a paedophile and a rapist who ruined her life.
Also troubling is the way much of the film’s the tension derives from Una’s power to expose Ray: wandering around his workplace, insinuating herself with his colleagues and, eventually, gate-crashing a party attended by his wife. Clearly this man deserves all he gets, but watching his precarious house of cards list and tilt is still palpably uncomfortable.
There are times when you question the film’s motives: what exactly do we gain by hearing this man justify himself? And why are we watching a troubled young woman pine after her abuser. Is it anything more than voyeurism?
In the end, Mara’s intelligent portrayal of Una guides the film away from the rocks of exploitation (her only flaw is a slightly dodgy English accent, which is too posh for her lower-middle class family and has a tendency to lapse into something vaguely European). A part of her is still 13 years old, and Mara hints at hidden depths of anguish and illness, a deep-seated rage that goes hand in hand with her feelings of affection for her abuser.
Her character wordlessly unpicks any arguments Ray comes up with to justify his actions. It’s a difficult, traumatic film, but one that, thanks to two powerful performances, is worth the emotional expenditure.