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


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.

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.

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.

Review – A Streetcar Named Desire at the Young Vic starring Gillian Anderson (2014)


Streetcar2After its superb production of A View From A Bridge, the Young Vic is clearly on a roll as its current production, Tennessee William’s classic Pulitzer prize-winning play A Streetcar Named Desire, continues to play to sold out houses. After failing to get to the Donmar’s much-praised production in 2009, I was very much looking forward to my first Streetcar (in no small part due to Gillian Anderson’s involvement) and I certainly wasn’t disappointed.

The play centres on the lives of three characters, sisters Blanche DuBois and Stella Kowalski and Stella’s husband Stanley, after Blanche arrives for a visit a decade after her sister last saw her. Over the course of the evening the audience learns more about Blanche’s past and struggles and sees how each of their desires impacts on those around them.

Ben Foster & Gillian Anderson. Photo by Alastair Muir
Ben Foster & Gillian Anderson. Photo by Alastair Muir

The design of the production seems to have divided opinion but I loved it. Staged in the round, on a rectangular space, dressed as the small New Orleans apartment of the Kowalskis, the set slowly begins to rotate once Blanche takes her first secret drink and only briefly stops during the play. For me this was a brilliant staging choice by Magda Willi and director Benedict Andrews (whose recent work includes the brilliant Three Sisters at the Young Vic in 2012). As an audience member you can’t help but feel as if you are intruding on the innermost lives of the characters and there is a wonderfully effective voyeuristic quality too – some scenes you see clearly in front of you, but others you glimpse through a window or bathroom door, until your perspective shifts with the stage. There are moments when characters overhear/see things they perhaps shouldn’t and it is the same feeling for the audience. The timing of this movement is perfect, mirroring Blanche’s descent into helplessness, occasionally speeding up to match the pace of a scene, before stopping at one moment, which felt abrupt but absolutely right for the scene. 

Vanessa Kirby as Stella.
Vanessa Kirby as Stella.

This production has also brought the play in to a more modern setting but despite this change in period, the apartment of Stella and Stanley feels very real. Unlike the childhood the sisters had, the Kowalskis are not wealthy and are making do with a simple two rooms, drawing a curtain across when extra privacy is needed (although it’s sheer quality means that nothing is really hidden in these rooms). It’s also fantastic that for the most part the actors remain on the stage, requiring quick changes in the confines of a curtained bath tub. This all adds to the pace and voyeuristic nature  of the production.

Its main power is driven by the acting of the three leads. Ben Foster is very strong as Stanley – a man you quite like until his first violent outburst shifts your perspective of him. As a former soldier, you sense all the time that his military instinct to react in the moment, often with frightening results, is lingering just under the surface. He does however clearly love his wife and feels threatened by Blanche’s presence and you are constantly waiting for them to erupt at one another, leaving Stella caught in the crossfire.

Staging which enhances the voyeuristic elements of the play, for both characters and audience. Photo by Nigel Norington
Staging which enhances the voyeuristic elements of the play, for both characters and audience. Photo by Nigel Norrington

Vanessa Kirby is one of my favourite young actresses (doing fantastic work in the Young Vic’s Three Sisters and the National’s recent Edward II to name just two) and she is wonderful as Stella. The conflicted emotions she feels when faced with supporting her sister and agreeing with her husband are conveyed brilliantly and its with unease that you watch her return to a man, who although loves her, is at risk of lashing out like an animal. She also has a very believable relationship with Gillian Anderson’s Blanche (no doubt helped by the actresses’ friendship, which began when they starred opposite each other in Great Expectations for the BBC). Corey Johnson is also very good as Mitch, Stanley’s friend who becomes entranced by Blanche. For a brief moment, he gives both Blanche and the audience hope that perhaps she may finally have a better future and some of his scenes with Gillian Anderson were particular highlights for me.

The play focuses however on Blanche’s journey and spiral into desperation and Gillian Anderson does a stunning job bringing this to life so vividly. Beginning with a haughty attitude of someone used to the finer things in life, we slowly watch as her facade begins to slip and we learn that her life has been somewhat different from the one her sister has assumed.

Gillian Anderson is superb as Blanche
Gillian Anderson is superb as Blanche

Gillian has to encompass so many emotions as Blanche in order to make her a fully rounded character and she does this superbly. Her Blanche is a woman who can turn in one scene from a giggly young, somewhat naive woman, to a sexy, sensual seductress, to someone who is clearly deeply troubled and desperately trying to keep her world together. I loved the touch that no matter the circumstance, including just getting out of a bath, Gillian’s Blanche is always in a pair of killer heels – its part of her image, which she is determined to cling to, even as it falls away. I have always thought Gillian was a superb actress (yes I’m an X-Files fan, so what) and over the years she has only become more impressive in her various roles. Here she draws the audience in so much to Blanche’s disintegration that by the end of the production I certainly felt exhausted and incredibly moved after having watched such a powerful and emotional performance.

For me one of the thrills of live theatre is seeing a production that is so powerful that by its end you know it’ll always stay with you. As the lights went out at the end of this production I had no doubt this was one of those productions. Its rare, powerful emotion, which demands so much from its cast was a privilege to watch and I have to admit, if I can acquire another ticket before the end of the run I’ll gladly experience it all over again. 

A Streetcar Named Desire continues its run at the Young Vic until 19th September 2014. All performances are sold out (with the exception of the charity gala performance costing £150). However, some standing tickets may still be available from the box office and a day seat lottery takes place each day. The production will also be screened via NT Live in cinemas on 16 September 2014. For more information visit the Young Vic’s website here