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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

Film Review: Carol

I’m going out on a limb here but I have to say I don’t understand the fuss about this film. Sometimes there are movies that receive enormous critical acclaim, described as the most beautiful and meaningful thing ever made but when it’s finally released to the public you just don’t see what the critics see. While I enthusiastically endorsed recent critics’ favourites including Macbeth, Suffragette, Black Mass and Steve Jobs, I genuinely just couldn’t understand their rhapsodic reviews of Carol which was shown at the London Film Festival. Todd Haynes’s earlier film Far From Heaven which focuses on the same period and essentially similar themes was a much better depiction of female emotional life in 1950s America, and one that actually generated more emotional connection for me.

The problem with Carol is that it left me cold – certainly not the reaction that I had expected – and one that was seemingly shared by a number of other civilians in the audience. You almost never see this at the film festival, but a lot of people were checking their phones throughout and a couple behind me on the way out said it was just ‘alright’ – not a ringing endorsement for a film that has been lavished with 5 star reviews. Sadly I think it’s one of those films that generate a lot of interest because of its subject matter particularly when associated with a big star name, which critics feel they have to love regardless of its shortcomings.

Carol is the story of two women who fall in love in 1950s America when they meet over the counter of a department store at Christmas. Based on what I’m assured is a so-so novel by Patricia Highsmith, Carol is a well-to-do housewife apparently separated from her husband and living at home with her son. While out shopping she meets Therese, a sale assistant, who she develops an interest in and soon the pair are meeting frequently for lunches and outings which nobody seems to find odd given their respective class. But Carol has a pattern of behaviour, considered outrageous at the time, and her husband threatens to take her child away. What follows is an examination of duty and sacrifice, to understand if love really can conquer all when a child’s future is at stake.

Part of the problem here is that the relationship between Therese and Carol just isn’t believable; they accelerate from eyeing each other up over the shop counter to being openly in love and running away together which seems both too fast in the context of the film and totally unlikely in the period this novel is set. It’s not the performances but somehow because the story is trying to so hard to emanate emotional and meaningful subtexts it actually fails to connect properly with the viewer. You never really know where it’s going and it doesn’t ask enough questions about who these people are and why they’re behaving as they do for us to invest in the individuals and their struggle. For example we don’t learn much about Carol, where she’s come from or the extent to which she’s been suffocated in a conventional marriage. In one scene there’s a hint that she’s openly engaged in a previous relationship with her similarly-aged female friend so it seemed a shame not to more fully explore the slightly predatory nature of her personality – a woman who is openly homosexual and pursues a considerably younger and clearly confused woman. Haynes seems instead too eager to show both Carol and Therese in a sympathetic light because this is a mainstream film about a female relationship rather than giving us interesting and troubled character studies of the type Highsmith tends to write.

Therese is actually a blank canvas and it’s virtually impossible to see what attracts Carol too her. Played by Rooney Mara, she is clearly beautiful and confused – shown using her reluctance to become engaged to any of the men she knows – but there is almost no depth to her, I would even go so far as to say insipid. I didn’t even like her as a person so I couldn’t bring myself to care if her relationship works out. Carol (Cate Blanchett) was by far the more interesting and sympathetic role and Blanchett does her best, but again it felt like so many opportunities were thrown away either to offer a sensitive study of a woman forced into a certain way of living or  to explore someone defying convention to live the way she chose whatever the consequences. Blanchett is such a credible actress that she gives us plenty of pain, frustration and feeling, but this is all unfortunately muffled by the strangely cold perspective of the film.

If you contrast this with Far From Heaven which so brilliantly depicted the same restricted period and its particular difficulties for women, the earlier film far outshines Carol. It covers many of the same themes, a troubled marriage, the expectations on housewives to be perfect, how latent homosexuality can pull a marriage apart, as well as the growth of deeply felt but unconventional relationships (in this case between a conventional woman and her black gardener), and the failings of Carol seem almost insurmountable against the beauty of Far From Heaven. Carol is clearly exquisitely put together, the colours muted to reflect the troubled story and everyone looks fabulous all the time, but it’s all just so empty.

I really wanted to like this film and had very high expectations from the reviews it garnered at early film festivals. Sadly this is an Emperor’s New Clothes situation – and I realise this may well be an unpopular view – but the inattention of the audience and my own lack of engagement with any of it makes this a wasted opportunity. Despite Blanchett’s hard-working central performance, I have to agree with the couple behind me, it’s just alright. Carol could have been a considerably better film.

Carol was shown at the London Film Festival and opened nationwide on 27 November so see it at your local cinema. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

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