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.
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.
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.