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Film Review: Una

Una -with Rooney Mara and Ben Mendlesohn

The transfer of a hit play to film can be a tricky process and those that have attempted it enjoyed varying degrees of success. It can add further layers to a well-constructed plot or by contrast stifle the immediacy of emotional engagement that works better in the theatre – and this is one of the problems that frequently dog Shakespeare on screen. But when the topic under discussion is particularly troubling, then these difficulties can be magnified and Benedict Andrews’s new film Una suffers in exactly this way.

David Harrower’s play Blackbird deals with the volatile issue of child abuse and dramatizes a confrontation years later between a woman in her late 20s who tracks down the man she had a relationship with 15 years earlier when she was 13. Although this is clearly abusive, the film hinges on whether Ray was genuinely in love with Una, as he claims and she continues to believe, or whether he was serial predator of which she was one of many.

The original play, devised entirely as a two-hander between then accuser and the accused was written in 2005 and won several theatre awards, including recent ‘Best Revival’, ‘Best Actor’ and ‘Best Actress’ Tony nominations for the acclaimed Broadway version starring Michelle Williams and Jeff Daniels in mid 2016. Much of its tension lies in the conflicting emotions the confrontation triggers as the characters fight it out in the break-room of Ray’s office, unable to leave until their shared past is resolved.

Andrews’s film takes a slightly different approach, playing down its theatrical roots and adding extra layers by personifying additional characters including Ray’s colleagues and wife, as well as looking at the context around the pair, with scenes set at Ray’s house during a party, with Una’s frantic mother and recreating some of the events of the past. This greater exposition is both its strength and weakness as a film because in ‘colouring-in’ the wider lives of the characters to add meaning and depth for the audience, it simultaneously drains the scenes between them of the raw power and degree of unease that they had on stage.

We first meet Una during a sordid nightclub encounter with a random man before she makes her way back home at dawn to her fragile, fussy mother. Clearly in her late 20s, she then dresses carefully, paying particular attention to her clothes and make-up – a telling statement of the confusion to come – and drives to Ray’s warehouse workplace where the two meet for the first time. And the past comes hurtling back with startling force as the two relive not just the long-term effects of the abuse but the mutual attraction that still exists between them.

The complex and difficult subject matter is handled with sensitivity by the cast, ensuring the many shades of grey in Harrower’s affecting text are given their due on screen. In a particularly intriguing performance, Ben Mendlesohn gives us a man who is ashamed of what he did but struggling to maintain the fiction that it was a single-incident based on a specific attraction to the young Una. He tells her over and over that he’s not ‘one of them’, i.e. not the men who do this regularly, but Mendlesohn offers just enough doubt in his voice to keep you wondering whether he believes it.

On the surface, Ray is a man who has shaken off his past, created a new identity, remarried, moved on, and supposedly not been tempted since, yet he is clearly alarmed by the ferocity with which his old feelings re-emerge when he sees Una again, forcing him to confront an idea of himself that’s he’s not comfortable with. And Mendlesohn’s performance is remarkably sympathetic given that it treads a dangerous line, openly acknowledging his actions 15 years before. He fully admits to doing the things he’s accused of but it’s interesting to see that this doesn’t make him a blanket monster, and both the script and Mendelsohn’s interpretations show us the complexity of feeling Una’s reappearance creates – from fear to attraction, confusion to self-disgust – as Ray tries to reassess himself.

More problematic in this version is the character of Una, played with some detachment by Rooney Mara and given the wider setting of the film is slightly in danger of altering the perspective on her character. When Una arrives at the office she clearly wants answers, she wants to know if Ray ever loved her and what the last 15 years have meant. In a really insightful interview with Michelle Williams who played the role on Broadway this year, she argues that Una wants revenge too; making Ray pay for abandoning her but in the course of their conversation the whole things becomes much bigger than she expected and she loses control of the situation. But, there’s no question that she is a fragile woman, damaged by the abuse and, unlike Ray, trapped forever – as Williams says ‘she never leaves that room’.

Initially we see this in Andrews’s film and the first hour or so when it’s largely Una and Ray in the break-room their relationship is compelling and unnerving. Generally Mara is an actor whose characters are hard for me to get to grips with; she has a remoteness in her performances that take away from the emotional impact of her roles – as happened with Carol previously. But here, for the most part, that coolness is put to good use as Una faces her abuser head on and continues to struggle with her emotional responses thereafter. That sense of trying to contain her feelings under a semi-icy exterior seems right and the power-shift between her and Ray is believable and engaging.

Less successful is the last section of the film set outside the office at the homes of Ray and another colleague during a party scene. Here Andrews allows Una’s revenge to take place, but in doing so marks a significant shift in her character that doesn’t serve her well. One critic wrote that Una here becomes a stereotypical crazy female who has lost her mind and is out for vengeance, which is unfortunately how this plays out on screen. Having understood the consequences of the relationship with Ray, outlined in the earlier conversation and told in flashback, Una seemed vulnerable and pitiable, but in pursing him to his house (deliberately not something that happens in the play, she chooses his workplace for the meeting) the sympathy shifts, wrongly, to Ray who is now being pursued in a way that seems almost sensationalist and undermines the mental and emotional impact on him of their earlier meeting. The wrong message to send an audience home with is that Ray can be excused because Una is a lunatic, but the final section of this film can be read in that way.

Another failure of widening out the exposition is the additional characters this version adds into the mix. In theory this could work well but none of them is given enough substance to make their presence necessary or even insightful, not to mention is a shocking waste of a very good supporting cast. Most unfortunate is Ray’s boss Mark played by Tobias Menzies who has next to nothing to do except stalk the corridors like a hungry velociraptor after Ray fumbles an important presentation. Menzies is fantastic at it, but you want to see more of him and it wouldn’t be beyond the realms of possibility for him to have played Ray given the usual intensity he brings to his work. Equally wasted though are Natasha Little as Ray’s unknowing wife and Tara Fitzgerald as Una’s equally brittle mother neither of whom add much to the plot. It seems a shame for Andrews to have created these additional layers but not given them enough substance to really come alive.

The stage to film translation is not always an easy one, and the two necessarily require different approaches. Given its subject matter and the two-handed nature of the play Blackbird is a particularly difficult thing to bring to the screen without somehow lessening the impact of the original. Andrews navigates some of these issues quite cleverly including the subtle use of flashbacks to tell 13-year-old Una’s story, but some of the present-day expansions are not quite as successful. A film that’s worth seeing, but if a West End revival of the play were likely then maybe that’s the place to start.

Una was premiered at the 2016 London Film Festival and opens nationwide on 1 September. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

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Steve Jobs – London Film Festival

Source: Universal Pictures

In the history of technology failure is as important as success, if not more so. What innovators and technicians learn when a product fails, and the drive it gives them to succeed the next time is immensely important. For too long historians of technology have only focused on key moments, the mileposts and markers of change that predicate a new age – the steam engine, the aeroplane, the nuclear bomb – as if somehow these things just pop into existence one day and revolutionise everything that has come before. But for every product that succeeds there have been thousands of failures that feed into the refining and redesigning of the next iteration. Steve Jobs, which had its European premiere at the London Film Festival last night, takes you on that journey from product failure to eventual success, and showcases the ambition, ruthlessness and self-belief required to succeed.

Like Suffragette (LFF’s Opening Night Gala), Steve Jobs can be viewed in two ways; how valuable an insight does it give us into the times in which it’s set taking in the personalities, events and encounters it depicts, and, at a different level, what value does it have as technological film. Its story is grouped around three product launches, the Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT cube in 1988 and ends with the iMac in 1998. The first failed and cost Jobs (Michael Fassbender) his position at Apple, ousted by the Board, after which he developed the NeXT cube which also tanked, both of which Danny Boyle’s film cleverly implies ultimately resulted in the success of the iMac and proved Jobs’s genius after 14 years. The story is far more than a tale of machines and the human element is added using Jobs’s contentious interactions with former Apple CEO John Scully (Jeff Daniels), colleague Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogan) and the daughter he long refused to accept, Lisa.

There are many compelling things about this film but perhaps the most surprising given its subject matter is how theatrical it felt. Performed in three acts and with Aaron Sorkin’s famously wordy dialogue it felt like you were watching an elaborate play that cleverly builds the tension throughout, giving you explosive conversations in each act before building to a semi-resolution in the last. It doesn’t take us up to the present day or through the eventual consequences of Jobs’s victory, but carefully leaves you with the idea that the development of technology never ends, that for an innovator the launch of a new product is not the end of the process but the beginning of a new one. Having a day job in a Business School meant, for me, that the film’s notions of innovation management, product development and marketing were resonant and in many ways give a flavour of both the cut-and-thrust of business, as well as the excitement of working in developing fields.

Being a Danny Boyle film also means it also has his recognisable stamp in terms of the use of light, colour and cultural references, plus an effectively mixed soundtrack. Each section of the film is shot as if it belongs to its particularly era which gave it a docu-history effect that worked really nicely. Boyle also used a lot of backstage shots of lighting rigs and scenery, as well as the grand sweep of the auditoria used for the launches, which reinforced Sorkin’s theatre-like script. Peppered throughout we also get the sense of Jobs’s love of aesthetics with art and music in particular playing a huge role in explaining his preference for slinky design. He’s seen presenting his products to the world in the San Francisco Opera House where he conducts a conversation in the orchestra pit, describing himself as a conductor who ‘plays the orchestra.’ We also see him at the NeXT launch removing a bunch of flowers from beside the cube and replacing them with lilies which he has handpicked from a dinner table somewhere else in the building because the shot is more pleasing to him with a sleeker-shaped flower. These are all tiny touches or even background to the emotional dramas being played out effectively ‘up-stage’, but the consistency of the design and character actions is nicely realised.

Fassbender has already generated a considerable degree of Oscar buzz for this role and (unsurprisingly) it is entirely deserved. Jobs is not a likeable character, he’s rude, arrogant, condescending and often irascible but while those qualities could have made him entirely repellent, Fassbender offers so many layers of performance that you simultaneously begin to understand the kind of person Jobs had to be to succeed. The incredible self-belief and refusal to hear others, to see events from anything but his own perspective seem here as necessary evils that eventually lead to his success. The relationship with his daughter Lisa is also incredibly nuanced and while his behaviour seems cruel, Fassbender also contrasts this with his own buried feelings of parental rejection (Jobs was adopted), isolation and of just genuinely not understanding other people’s emotional responses and why they can’t put them aside.  He’s an incredibly intuitive actor who thoroughly embodies every character he plays which brings a rare level of intensity to the screen and here he punches out Sorkin’s dialogue with incredible conviction. So much so that given the hoo hah which accompanied the making of this film and Fassbender’s last minute sign-up, you wonder if it would have worked so well without him. He so dominates the screen that when he’s not there, you are just waiting for him to come back and in places Sorkin’s script feels overwritten because Fassbender can, and does, produce a single look that obviates the need for the next 10 lines of dialogue. So in less than a month that’s two astonishing Oscar-worthy performances, although I actually hope he gets recognised for Macbeth which just has the edge as a complete film.

There’s good support from Seth Rogan as Steve Wozniak, Jobs’s colleague and friend from the days they worked from their garage. The film also explores the fascinating relationship between these two men and doesn’t really take sides, so while Jobs comes off quite badly in their early scenes, during their major final confrontation we see the petty jealousy and longing for recognition that Wozniak has born for 14 years but was unable to achieve without the ambitious qualities Jobs possessed. Jeff Daniels, after a stint in Sorkin’s The Newsroom, plays the man who supposedly fired Steve Jobs from Apple after the failure of the Macintosh and the two play a cleverly directed scene set in 1988 as a Sculley-Jobs confrontation is interspersed with flashback scenes of the original rainy night emergency Board meeting where we learn who was really responsible for forcing that decision. Finally Kate Winslet is a constant presence as Joanna Hoffman who was Job’s Marketing Director and friend, although closer to a personal assistant / counsellor in this film. It doesn’t really explore their relationship or why she continued to work for someone so difficult or how reliant he was on her. Winslet’s accent didn’t seem to exist in the 1984 section but became more pronounced in the 1988 and 1998 sections but otherwise she is a very good support figure, almost part of the background but a constant presence and control.

On the red carpet of the LFF’s Closing Night Gala Michael Fassbender made the point that this film is not a biopic but a dramatisation, and one that compresses numerous events and relationships into 3 convenient slots. It is the nature of filmmaking that a lot will be left out and conversations imagined in order to give the story greater depth. In presenting all this information in an unconventional way, Boyle directs with energy and purpose, nicely capturing the emotional intensity and frayed tempers that would seem natural in the frantic minutes before a product launch, and it certainly seems fitting that an film about an inventor should have an innovative set-up. Arguably it’s a little too reverential towards the end but then with a sea of iphones taking pictures of the cast and Boyle on stage it’s hard to make a case against the impact of Jobs on modern technology. Some of the computer-talk may have gone over my head but the quality of the performances and the design make Steve Jobs compelling viewing. Most impressively, it’s a film that is absolutely right in its comments on the nature of technological development and the huge effort involved in developing those rare successes that just might go on to become a sensation.

Steve Jobs was shown at the London Film Festival and opens in UK cinemas on 13 November. Follow this blog on Twitter: @culturalcap1


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