“Una” lives in the house where she grew up, cares for her sickly mother and endures the lingering stares of the neighbors.
By night she prowls nightclubs in search of brusque, anonymous sex with strangers. At dawn she comes home, barefoot and unashamed of her ritual “walk of shame.”
But even a mere glimpse of a flashback tips us as to how she got here in her late 20s. She was a pretty tween. There was a man, perhaps the one scratched out of family photos? Something happened and we think we know what.
Rooney Mara has the title role in “Una,” an “I want…closure” drama that opens with sad resignation and builds towards something disturbingly pre-#MeToo. Because that thing which you can guess happened had not just consequences and repercussions, and it didn’t just scar the victim. It changed her and utterly altered her future.
Una is stuck in a present she doesn’t control. And she remembers the past. Young Ruby Stokes of British TV’s “DaVinci’s Demons” plays the child Una, recalling encounters, what she was wearing, her plaintive recorded video appearance in British court at the trial of her abuser.
“Would you give him a message?” her 13 year-old self wanted to know. That question is surprising, and the “message” isn’t what you expect.
EveryVillain Ben Mendelsohn is that man, a born creeper who has served his time when we meet him, and when Una tracks him down. He’s a manager at a warehouse, with a different name, a wife and a different life. He goes pale when she strolls into his place of business. No sense pretending he doesn’t recognize her all these years later.
“How many other 13 year-olds have you had sex with?”
There’s an unsettling sexuality to this hostile, threatening meeting, creepy “Lolita” intimations in the dynamic. She is the aggressor in this adult encounter, he is the one on his heels, taken aback, afraid. Her attire, her demeanor, the way Mara’s Una carries herself suggest someone who learned too early how she affected men, even if she never learned to control this power.
Una reduces Ray, who now goes by Peter, to a stammering, fearful 40something, with no control over this ugly past that has stormed into his workplace in what could be the worst day of his professional life. He can’t forgive the unforgivable, can’t explain away the transgression.
“I was never one of them,” he says at her read-between-the-lines queries about patterns of behavior. “I was NEVER one of them.”
This was something deeper, he insists. With an admittedly brash, physically precocious 13 year-old girl?
“What could I possibly have given you besides my body?”
His subordinate Scott (Riz Ahmed, Mendelsohn’s “Rogue One” co-star) is confused about who she is, but putty in the hands of the pretty young thing who has shown up at work. Peter has responsibilities this day, and he can’t run away from them or Scott even as she stalks him, invading his sight lines, rattling him.
Benedict Andrews’ claustrophobic film betrays its David Harrower stage-play origins, pinning us into whatever corner of this office and warehouse facility first Peter, then Una, flee to. The flashbacks feel like sketches of memory, with young Stokes suggesting the confusion of childhood, the misunderstanding of the naive about what was going on.
But like the even more disturbing “The Strange Ones,” about the unsettling dynamic between a young boy and the man we’re meant to see as his kidnapper/abuser, “Una” skirts the line between a situation she might have some power in and the sense that this is something simply awful, simply “happening to” her.
It’s daring enough to hint that there’s no way this story (the film was made in 2017) would be greenlit for filming, even in the UK, today.
Even though Mara’s subtle, bruised and confused performance suggests the damage this has done, even if Una still doesn’t realize the full extent of it, even if she still cannot articulate what she wants out of this long-awaited confrontation with her abuser. Because she’s so damaged she just doesn’t know.
MPAA Rating: R for strong sexual content, nudity and language
Cast: Rooney Mara, Ruby Stokes, Ben Mendelsohn, Riz Ahmed
Credits: Directed by Benedict Andrews, script by David Harrower, based on his play, “Blackbird . A Film 4 release.
Running time: 1:33