David Harrower has expanded his internationally successful stage two-hander Blackbird for Benedict Andrews’ film version, now called Una: he gets our two lead characters occasionally out of the factory break room they have their devastating encounter in; he adds more chapters and more “story”; and – most critically – he and Andrews include a huge swathe of flashbacks to the events the characters spent the play recalling, which, if you’ve seen the play, may surprise or even shock you.
Blackbird, the play, is about the confrontation between 27 year old Una and 55 year old Ray; fifteen years ago, when she was 12 and he was 40, they had a three month sexual relationship that ended with his four year imprisonment. Now she has surprised him at his place of work, and the past is going to get dredged up for our somewhat lurid and dreadfully sad entertainment. These are shattered people with shattered lives and seeing each other cannot bring out much good.
Given a fine production, this is a brilliant play. I saw one, under Cate Blanchett’s direction at the Sydney Theatre Company, and it was a profound evening in the theatre. Harrower’s coup de theatre five minutes from the final curtain is jaw-dropping: he brings on an actual twelve year old girl, and suddenly the reality of the relationship we’ve just spent a couple of hours visualising hits home. We’ve been tricked into believing in a love affair, when all that’s really been on stage is the wreckage of crime.
In the film, we see multiple flashbacks of the “affair”, with twelve year old Ruby Stokes playing a young version of Rooney Mara’s older Una. This obviously jettisons the impact the play’s ending had, and the impact of the film as a whole, for the sequences between Ben Mendelsohn’s Ray and Stokes are never as disturbing as that moment allowed our brain to create. It’s a big literal choice that may very well have been the wrong one, and when Andrews tries the trick again, using standard cinematic language, it simply fails. We’re over being shocked about something we’ve already spent three acts being shocked about.
Indeed, considering Andrews made his theatrical reputation as a provocateur, it’s strange how safe Una is. The subject matter is intense, inherently distressing, taboo – but the film backs away from many edges which, frankly, I was expecting it to leap from with gusto. Perhaps I was bringing my own expectations about what a “Benedict Andrews movie” should be, having seen many “Benedict Andrews productions” on stage. The writing here is what pushes the envelope, not the direction.
If he’s unwilling to embrace his inner Gaspar Noé, at least Andrews, making his feature film debut, lets his Kubrick fantasies run wild. He utilises a very cold, formal shooting style and a stark deployment of sound (including Jed Kurzel’s superb creepy score) that evokes the chilly Kubrickian atmospheres of Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure and the cool severity of Shane Carruth. Twice, Andrews deploys a wide-screen symmetrical image, with perhaps a tiny zoom in, to instigate dread, and, given we’ve grown up on The Shining, it works. This style places him in my wheelhouse, and certainly puts him on my director radar. The film is rather slight, but the talent on display carries depth.
In two very tricky roles, Mara and Mendelsohn are compelling and believable, but both performances feel very, very effortful. Harrower’s dialogue sounds, to my ear and memory, often directly lifted from his stage script, but of course it’s been cut way down, and it feels like the actors feel the burden of filling in the missing lines with physical intensity, as though they’re clenching their guts as they talk. Andrews is famous for his brilliant stage metaphors – in his German production of Blackbird, Ray spilled water and then desperately tried to mop it up, a wonderful little microcosm of his life – but his film is very, very literal, surprisingly so, and unfortunately, to its detriment. Una is stylish and precise, painful and attractive, but it shows us enough to stop us imagining the worst.