Mara has an intensity that is unsettling and disquieting and she wields it here in ways that dare you to flinch in her presence. Her searching eyes drill into you looking for an answer to her queries, knowing there will be nothing at the root and insisting you keep digging anyway to satisfy her grim curiosity. It’s uncomfortable and deeply unnerving, because you know you haven’t earned the right to look away.
There’s no such thing as the perfect victim. It’s a truth that sexual assault advocates know well, but is still winding its way into the public consciousness. Belief in a just world necessitates that we blame a victim for their victimization, because it allows us to distance ourselves from the horrors they were subjected to. It can’t happen to us because we’d make better decisions.
But what happens when the abused and the victimized don’t see their abuse as harmful? How do we deal with the complex truths at the heart of story wherein the victim wants nothing more than to reunite with her abuser, especially when the victim was a child? Una tries hard to treat these questions with the dignity they deserve in this tense and deeply uncomfortable film about a victim confronting her abuser as an adult.
A young woman (Rooney Mara) shows up at the warehouse job of an older man (Ben Mendelsohn), seeking clarity on an illicit “affair” that happened between them when she was 13 and he was her neighbor and trusted family friend. She believes that he abandoned her the night before they planned to run away together, choosing instead to turn himself in and serve time in prison for his crime. through flashbacks and exposition we get the full story: their separation was due to a misunderstanding. In the interim years, he has rebuilt his life under a new name “Pete” and has put his past behind him. When Una finds him again via a newspaper photograph, she wants nothing more than to know for sure the truth of the scandal that has cast a shadow over her entire adult life.
The film’s greatest strength here is Rooney Mara’s performance as Una. Mara has an intensity that is unsettling and disquieting and she wields it here in ways that dare you to flinch in her presence. Her searching eyes drill into you looking for an answer to her queries, knowing there will be nothing at the root and insisting you keep digging anyway to satisfy her grim curiosity. It’s uncomfortable and deeply unnerving, because you know you haven’t earned the right to look away.
Mendelsohn’s turn as Pete has its own quirks, brilliant and frustrating all at once. His immediate concern is not for the broken woman he has left in his wake but the solidity of the new life he has built. The manipulation of his past is on full display. He frustrating need to distance himself from other men like himself both understandable and deeply troubling. For Pete, his reprehensible actions were motivated by love and infatuation and are therefore forgivable. The impermissibility of his abuse scarcely registers.
Most of the film takes place in the warehouse, their long overdue confrontation simmering close to something akin to violence but not quite. They fight and argue and posture for each other like lovers, the tension growing, sexual as ever even as our revulsion grows. Una’s desperate desire to be close to Pete is frustrating because we know that he abused her, in her mind his great sin is abandonment; leaving her alone in that hotel room all those years ago when all she wanted was to love him. For Pete, his attraction has not acquiesced, but the dangers of imploding his newly created fiction is too high a price even for him.
It is startling to watch Una insert herself into Pete’s life at every turn. The film takes place over the course of one night, and by the end of is, Una has landed herself in Pete’s house, chatting with his wife. Her insistence that she deserves a place in his new life is confounding but still understandable. She wants a closure he can no longer give her.
The film is taut and distressing, but well worth the watch. It’s unsurprising to find that it is adapted from a play as the two-man structure is pitched perfectly to elicit maximum discomfort and anxiety. Where this film succeeds is in giving voice to a victim who does all the wrong things and making you sympathize with her anyway. Una’s behaviour is inappropriate, but also both earned and deserved, and it’s the tension between those two truths that is the magic of this story.