Saturday, 9 December 2017

Movie Review: Una (2017)



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The plot: Una (Rooney Mara) tracks down Ray (Ben Mendelsohn) to his workplace. As they talk, they discuss their past history together, how their lives turned out since they last spoke, and how Ray was in a sexual relationship with Una when she was only 13 years old. However, whatever Una’s reasons for wanting to see Ray again, it seems that she is driven by more than just anger.






Slowly but surely, Ben Mendelsohn has gone from being one of the unsung heroes of the Australian New Wave into a prominent figure in Hollywood. The man has worked with the likes of Ridley Scott and Christopher Nolan and he even landed a role as a literal Star Wars villain; he knows how to play the antagonist. That amount of experience serves him uncomfortably well here, echoing very real and very unsettling attempts to justify his actions, and the fact that his chemistry with Mara is as natural as it is just makes what he is saying and how he delivers it that much more impactful. Mara, on the other hand, is given a role that is even more complex. The character of Una spends most of the story juggling a lot of conflicting and heavy emotions connected to Ray, something that very easily could have fallen into the realms of unwitting exploitation. Mara is frighteningly good here, managing to weave through the character specifics she’s given while giving the role an unwavering sense of loss and even desperation. Again, her chemistry with Mendelsohn ends up making the cold hard facts of them both hit that much harder. Ruby Stokes as the younger Una is effective to the point of being genuinely uncomfortable to watch on screen, even more so than the leads, and Riz Ahmed as one of “Pete’s” co-workers brings some subtler points to the table in terms of the effects of toxic masculinity.

At face value, the story concept has an element of revenge imbedded into it. A victim directly confronting their abuser and making them face their actions is something that has been dallied around in the realms of revenge thrillers for a very long time by this point. However, that is far too simple, at least for this story. It does delve into feelings of anger and resentment, but it also explores notions of abandonment, inner conflict and… love. As we see Una and Ray interact and reminisce about their history, it comes across less like real confrontation and more like two old friends remembering the good old days. To say that this is uncomfortable to sit through might be the single greatest understatement of the year. Between the talented actors, the frequently harsh lighting, the sterile and unnerving camera work and framing by cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis, and the quietly pulsing and grinding soundtrack from Jed Kurzel, this film makes two people just talking to each other feel like the most terrifying thing that could possibly be happening. Mainly because, as more specifics are revealed, it pretty much is.

However, it’s not purely because of the specific actions made. Sure, Ray’s behaviour and attitude towards the younger Una are certainly nauseating, but that’s not what makes this so damn petrifying. Instead, it’s because of the resulting reactions and how complex they are on a psychological level. Una may be angry at Ray for what he did, but she’s also regretful that they didn’t go ahead with their plan to run away together, disconnected from the rest of the world, and even looks back at what Ray did to her with a certain level of nostalgia. They even share a laugh or two while reminiscing, and just typing that fills me with an urge to scrub my skin until it goes bright pink. But here’s the thing: Along with showing that a lot of powerful people have used that power for incredibly dehumanizing means, 2017 has also shown a break in the usual silence that surrounds these stories. The human mind isn’t equipped to deal with something this traumatic, and when the brain can’t process something, it will likely just suppress rather than attempt to deal with it. People speaking out against abusers of this type takes a lot of courage to do, both because of how society tends to give male aggressors the benefit of the doubt and because that kind of power dynamic can truly twist a person’s understanding of what normal human interaction is. And that, in no uncertain terms, is what has happened to Una in the wake of her abuse.

The literal first thing Ray says to Una as a child is that she should be smiling, since it’s such a lovely day and all. Later on in the film, Riz Ahmed’s Scott tries to make Una leave a party at Ray’s house, something that she doesn’t do willingly. I bring both of these up because part of what makes Una’s character so heartbreaking is that her actions end up being largely informed by the male influences in her life, both short-term and long-term. Scenes of her at home with her parents show said parents fighting, with her father literally punching into a wall in his anger. This might go on to explain why she ended up clinging to Ray as closely as she did, seeing him as the only man in her life that actually loved her. This is incredibly twisted reasoning by design and it shows the lingering effects that this kind of abuse can leave on a person. She has genuine love for Ray, something that unconsciously sickens her, and even though she has a certain degree of recognition that what he did was wrong, her main regret is that it didn’t continue. That her love for him wasn’t reciprocated. That the absence of him in her life lead her to frequent one-night-stands at clubs as an adult. As much as promiscuity tends to be linked to parental issues and sexual trauma by armchair psychologists, these things aren’t presented as if this is the only outcome. It merely presents all of this as a very probable possibility in response to such treatment. With the year we’ve had since this film’s initial release, and the fact that cries of “Well, why didn’t you report this sooner?” or “Oh, they’re just saying this to get attention” or even “Leave it for the courts to decide” are still going on right now in response to recent accusations, this film’s admittance of how these situations aren’t as cut-and-dry as they may appear is incredibly vital.

All in all, this might the roughest sit I’ve had all year, if not since I started this blog to begin with. With incredibly powerful acting, a keen cinematic eye that manages to transcend the film’s origins as a stage play, and writing that unearths unnerving but necessary truths about the open wounds created by sexually abusive relationships, particularly those involving children, this is the kind of cinema that is to be entered into with caution.

I’d honestly recommend avoiding this thing altogether, as I will admit to being profoundly disturbed by what I just watched. However, victim-blaming and flagrant hand-waving of real-world accusations of sexual abuse have been rather prominent this year. This film showing an example of such a scenario in all its unnerving psychological detail highlights not only the damage caused by such abusers but also how that damage can warp a person’s perspective of that person. When someone does something this horrible to another human being, anything from fear to denial to mistaken feelings of affection to any combination of the three can make what seems like the easy choice from the outside feel all-too-distant. It illustrates in truly heartbreaking fashion how the scars formed by such actions are not only deep, but affecting in ways that aren’t immediately obvious. I won’t pretend to know what that kind of trauma feels like from a perspective of personal experience… but after watching this, I feel I at least have some kind of foundation from which I can begin to understand.

This ranks higher than The Promise, and it’s not for any reason relating to enjoyment. If that was the sole factor here, this film likely wouldn’t even be ranked in the first place. In this case, it goes higher than Promise because the effect this film left me with is something incredibly unpleasant but also far more profound than what Promise ultimately gave me. However, as much as I respect this film, both for its content and the simple fact that it was able to affect me on this level, it still doesn’t fare as well with me as The Killing Of A Sacred Deer, a likewise unpleasant and uncomfortable film that I can actually see myself rewatching at some point. I can almost guarantee that that isn’t going to happen with this film. I don’t think my heart could take it.

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