Film Review – Una (2016); David Harrower brings his intense play Blackbird to the screen

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Earlier this year, I took a trip to New York to see lots of theatre. One of the plays I saw during that time was Blackbird starring Michelle Williams and Jeff Daniels in a two-hander. It was an intense production (you can read my review here) and on hearing it had been adapted by its writer David Harrower in to a film, to be screened during the London Film Festival, I was curious to see it in a different medium.

Renamed Una, the story is a chilling, uncomfortable, examination of the disturbing reality and consequences of child abuse. Una (Rooney Mara) arrives unannounced at Ray’s (Ben Mendelsohn) workplace, to his visible shock and horror. It soon becomes apparent that Una and Ray had a sexual relationship 15 years previously – when she was just 13 (it was 12 in the play and I don’t really understand why the change for the film, seeing as it is well under the age of consent). It’s a horrifying realisation for the audience and over the course of the film, we see the true consequences of such abuse; something we don’t like to think about and the way it affects that child’s life forever, as they mature and become an adult.

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Rooney Mara as Una (Photo via: Entertainment Weekly)

 

Although for the needs of a film, the story is expanded a little, it remains a piece driven by its two central characters and both actors do a tremendous job with such challenging material. Ben Mendelsohn (most recently known for Netflix’s Bloodline) is excellent at portraying Ray as a seemingly normal man. There are times when you almost forget what he has done, so good is his performance. Interestingly, he was quite different from Jeff Daniels, who played him as a much weaker and broken man. Seeing Una terrified him and he often felt weak compared to her. Mendelsohn plays him as a more confident man in my view; far more in control of his emotions. Daniels’ Ray perhaps genuinely didn’t think he was like “those other men”, but I had the sense here that Mendelsohn’s Ray knew exactly who and what he was. This made him much more disturbing.

Rooney Mara is the pivotal piece of the picture and she is astonishing as Una. It’s a role that demonstrates the calibre of actress she is when given the right material (one of the weakest bits of the wonderful film Lion for me was how wasted Mara was). She has an incredible on-screen presence that pulls you in to her world and doesn’t let you go. You see how damaged Una is; how confused she’s been for 15 years about what happened to her. There remains something childlike about her; as if part of her has been frozen in the past. There is also a tension between the two of them that chills you, as you see that as a girl she was more upset at thinking Ray had deserted her rather than what he’d done to her and her complex feelings for him made me ache for her. We rightly think of children who experience such terrible things as victims, but Una’s/Blackbird’s power is in highlighting that at the time those children may not see themselves that way.

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Ben Mendelsohn as Ray (Photo via: Entertainment Weekly)

 

One of the most powerful moments in the play was when Una recalled the last few hours she spent with Ray, after they’d ran away together to the seaside, apparently about to embark on a new life. You couldn’t see it then, but through the talent of the writing and Michelle Williams, your mind took you in to the past with Una. One of the most disturbing aspects of the film however, is the fact they can show us young Una as well as adult Una and indeed seeing her as a child with Ray is harrowing.

The film chooses to move beyond the factory setting, which allows us to see both Una and Ray interact with others; Una mainly with her mother (played by Tara Fitzgerald), who she has clearly never really forgiven for how she reacted in the aftermath of what happened, and Ray’s work colleague Scott (Riz Ahmed), someone who she could perhaps be happy with if she wasn’t quite so broken and had circumstances been different. Unlike the play, we also get to see Ray in his new life, with his wife and friends and the film leaves us with the same frightening uncertainty as the play, as to whether Una really was his only victim.

I’ve seen some people comment that they thought this was a paedophile apologist film, but it’s not that at all. It couldn’t be clearer how dreadful the actions of these predators are, while also shining a spotlight on just how such events can happen, when someone who seems to be like any other neighbour can choose to take advantage of a child in this way. It also makes us think again about those children and how they require emotional strength and support long in to adulthood.

I admit I may not have chosen to see this film had I not already watched the play, but it’s a strong, emotional and thought-provoking  piece and a very capable directorial film debut by playwright and theatre director Benedict Andrews (most recently director of Gillian Anderson in A Streetcar Named Desire) and I hope is a performance that will earn Rooney Mara deserved praise. It is certainly a film no one who sees it will forget.

Una does not yet have a release date in the UK or the USA, but I’ll update this post if one is announced.

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Are You Watching..? – Bloodline (Netflix)

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Towards the end of last year, one of my friends recommended Bloodline to me and I’m very pleased he did. One of Netflix’s original dramas in 2015, it was soon a firm favourite of mine, due to its intelligent and engaging writing, multi-layered characters and the fact that it keeps you guessing from beginning to end. One thing is certain though – when you watch Bloodline, you need to be paying attention.

After a shorter wait than those who tuned in twelve months ago, I’ll finally get to see what the next chapter has in store for the Rayburn family when series 2 arrives on Netflix later this week. Therefore, now is the ideal time to catch up on one of the strongest dramas on television at the moment.

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The Rayburn family

Created by Glenn Kesler, Todd A. Kesler and Daniel Zelman, the trio behind one of my all-time favourite series Damages (more on that here – if you didn’t watch it, then add that to your list too!), Bloodline is all about the Rayburn family headed by Robert and Sally, who have run a small hotel on the beach in the Florida Keys for 45 years. We meet them as the whole family is coming together to celebrate this 45th anniversary, including eldest son Danny (Ben Mendelsohn), the clear black sheep of the clan. Over the course of the thirteen episodes, we watch how all of their lives are affected by his return and see how, despite the setting, not everything in their lives is paradise.

One of the aspects I love most about this series is its structure. Following the mould set by its creators’ previous success Damages, glimpses in to the future are used to tease the audience about the path that lies ahead for this family. By the end of the first episode, it’s clear that the not too distant future does not look rosy for the Rayburns. The big questions though remain unanswered – what happens along the way to get them to that point and who in the family knows the truth? It is an incredibly effective way of hooking the audience early. You know more than the characters do and are intrigued by the mysteries that lie ahead.

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Kyle Chandler & Ben Mendelsohn

There are also glimpses in to the past along the way, which only add more questions – who is Sarah? What happened to her and how has that impacted on the family? A series that keeps you guessing and reveals its secrets at its own pace is always one that will keep me engaged and enthralled.

One of Bloodline’s other great strengths is the quality of its cast. Mendelsohn is superb as Danny; he is a character you change your view on many times and his performance is always one from which you are never sure what to expect. However the rest of the cast is great too. Kyle Chandler plays his brother Detective John Rayburn brilliantly. He has clearly been forced to take the elder sibling role and you are conscious of the pressure of expectation he feels, whether from a responsibility to his siblings or his parents. Norbert Leo Butz and Linda Cardellini are very good as the remaining siblings, each with their own complicated lives, in to which the reappearance of Danny is something they could do without.

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Ben Mendelsohn & Sissy Spacek

Heading the family is the brilliant pairing of Sam Shepard and Sissy Spacek and you sense each has their own skeletons in the closet. As a unit they are fantastic and because they are all equally capable of holding the screen and the audience’s interest, it allows the writers to weave in strands for each of them, which gradually come to link in to the overarching questions you have by the end of the series opener.

I’d also be surprised if you don’t recognise an aspect of your own family’s dynamic when watching the Rayburns, whether it’s the mother with her favourite can do no wrong child, to the daughter always trying to make her father proud, to the brother who feels he has to be a stable force for the rest of his family on top of his own problems.

I admit, especially early on, there is quite a lot of talk in Bloodline and perhaps some may feel there are too many dialogue-heavy scenes and not enough actually happening. However, the writing wonderfully builds up events, as the jigsaw pieces start to slot in to place. Also, it’s certainly lovely to watch a show set in such a paradise – clear water, sunshine, white sandy beaches; the ideal backdrop for a story containing buried family secrets!

Series 2 of Bloodline arrives on Netflix on Friday 27th May 2016, just in time for the weekend. If you are in need of a new series and enjoy intelligent dramas, that are well written and strongly acted, then I highly recommend you give it a try!

The first series of Bloodline is available to watch now on Netflix. Series 2 is available from 27th May 2016. For a taster, here’s the trailer to the first series.