Screening this Friday at Chicago’s Facet Cinematheque is Benedict Andrews’ festival feted Una (Noteworthy). Originally premiering to warm reviews out of Telluride and Toronto last year, the film’s struggle to find an audience amid the glut of awards contenders of the year has been unfortunate, as it’s a sturdy, well-conceived, and thoughtful acting showcase with an especially timely subject matter. An adaptation of David Harrower’s stageplay Blackbird, Una expands on the play’s singular warehouse setting by utilizing a series of vivid flashbacks, in what’s a notable departure from the source material that yields its own set of intriguing questions.
The film finds Una (played by Rooney Mara as an adult, Ruby Stokes as a teenager) living with the unresolved guilt of being abandoned by her much-older partner, Ray (Ben Mendelsohn). Fifteen years after the incident, Una discovers that Ray, after serving time for statutory rape, has taken on a new life as a warehouse manager. Now going by Peter, Ray has essentially put aside the incident, rebuilding his life with a family and career. Such luxuries have eluded Una, who remains haunted by the incident. One gathers that a cosmic force has compelled Una to confront Ray, where she initially vomits outside his workplace before surging into the warehouse with a kind of undeterred constitution that you wouldn’t have expected from her.
More or less a two-hander involving Mara and Mendelsohn, first-time director Benedict Andrews is keenly aware of his actors’ inherent gifts and will frequently strip the film of anything resembling the cinematic in favor of a tête-à-tête. You’ll see the two in a heated confrontation where Mara is tasked with reactive close-ups, her face occupying a frame with but a gray cinderblock wall in the background. This may not sound especially interesting, but there’s no denying that Mara and Mendelsohn essentially propel the film through every facet of their performance, whether it be close-up or through their body language in a medium or long shot. The aforementioned plunges into flashback impart a decorative color to the film’s proceedings, as these sequences favor lush ephemeral moments over dialogue. And it’s in these transitions between dialogue-intensive repartees in a fluorescently lit warehouse against the more naturalistic and warm hues of Una’s flashbacks that afford the film with a measure of cinematic bravura that’s both welcoming and unexpected.