Whether it’s the squirmy complexity of the Nate Parker scandal, the family accusations aimed at Woody Allen or the ongoing legal battle against Bill Cosby, Hollywood has recently grappled with a number of sexual-assault controversies.
But those cases have tended to play out abstractly, via details of long-ago incidents and the distancing words of Op-Ed columns.
That will all change with “Una,” an explosive sexual-abuse film drama about the aftermath of a relationship between a 40-year-old man and 13-year-old girl, which makes visual what in news stories can be vague.
Though its story is fictional, the movie’s provocations could stir emotions as deep as any real-life story — not least because it refuses to treat characters as strict victims or abusers.
“There’s no excuse for what happened between Ray and Una — it’s an unacceptable criminal relationship,” said the film’s director, Benedict Andrews, referring to protagonists played by Ben Mendelsohn and Rooney Mara. “But this is a more specific way of looking at the topic. Is Ray still a criminal or is he a good person? And Una’s question is the same as the audience’s: Was it love or was it abuse?”
Based on David Harrower’s acclaimed 2005 play “Blackbird” (it garnered three Tony nominations when staged on Broadway with Jeff Daniels and Michelle Williams this year), the England-set “Una” enters a world in which the awareness of sexual-assault issues is high but nuance can be lacking.
So when the undistributed picture makes its world premiere Friday night at the Telluride Film Festival (before arriving in Toronto for that city’s festival shortly after), it will toss a grenade into both the current high-pressure debate about apt punishment for sex offenders as well as the modern movie business, which in 2016 often steers clear of third-rail subjects.
Opening on the ruminative shot of a 13-year-old Una (Ruby Stokes), the film soon flashes forward 15 years to the present, as a clearly damaged adult version of the character (Mara) sets out to confront abuser Ray (Mendelsohn) at his nondescript suburban office.
What follows is a complicated tangle between the pair, wrapped around short bursts of memory-driven flashbacks. In earlier times, Ray, a neighbor to Una’s family, meets the young girl and establishes a rapport, eventually fleeing with her for a seaside town and a potential new life together. After having sex with Una at a motel, Ray abandons her, prompting Una to panic and setting off events that leads to his trial and imprisonment. After serving four years, he has now sought to create a new life, with a new name, and over the course of a decade has largely succeeded.
But now Una has tracked down Ray to seek … what? Truth? Resolution? Revenge? Reconciliation? All of the above? Their back and forth soon becomes a study in emotional forensics.
Audiences are asked to ponder not only which character has more credibility, but if conventional definitions of abuse are too simplistic. By portraying an adult Una who still desires Ray — “Is it because I’m too old?” she says plaintively during an intimate moment, as she unsuccessfully tries to persuade him to have sex — it suggests a victim’s complicity, even affection. The portrayal comes in pointed contrast to the current debate about cases such as the Brock Turner Stanford sexual assault sentencing, in which, aided by social media’s decibel level, victims are defined chiefly by, well, their victimhood.
And by at times showing Ray in a sympathetic light, it implies that an abuser has emotions that can explain, if not justify, his behavior. (Certainly it considers whether the passage of time should merit an absolution--a question with chilling overtones of the Parker, Allen and Cosby affair--though it should be noted that, unlike Ray, none of those men have been convicted).
Harrower, who read a number of real-life accounts in his research, said he wrote the play because modern victim stories didn’t seem sufficiently complex.
“The typical representation of the victim and abuser doesn’t take a lot of what happens into account. There are myriad responses — you just need to read these accounts to see these conflicting emotions,” said the playwright by phone from his home in Glasgow, Scotland.
He said Una took on a quasi-mystical power for him.
“I almost had no control. She was coming out with these things, and the more I pushed them down, the more she pushed back,” he said. “In some of the writing process I thought, ‘I can’t write that. I can’t say that.’ But I kept it in.”
Cinema has been intermittently interested in issues of pedophilia and sexual abuse, with films such as “The Accused” and “The Woodsman” presaging more modern tales like “Spotlight” and the documentary “The Hunting Ground.”
The bar is really high when you tackle something like this; you need to be on your game.
But where many earlier films drew a clear line between abuser and victim — and often focused on the latter’s quest for justice — “Una” opens up a new font in the genre. It subversively asks if other reactions are more interesting — and, even, more common. And it questions whether previous stories under-emphasize the relationship between victim and attacker.
“What’s striking to me is the way these two people are fused because they can’t talk to anyone else,” said Andrews, who wrote the script with Harrower. “It’s like every affair, only more so. It gives them a great charge that belongs only to them, almost like a kind of shared memory bank “
(Another upcoming film, Paul Verhoeven’s “Elle,” starring Isabelle Huppert, takes a similar tack, following a sexual-assault victim through a series of jaw-dropping reactions to the crime.)
The closest historical analogue to “Una” might be “Lolita,” though with that title character a far greater driver of the story and relationship, even that comparison is inexact.
“Una” was financed primarily by funds from the upscale British company Film4 and the national arts agency Creative Scotland, each willing to roll the dice.
Whether a U.S. distributor will take a flier on the film remains to be seen. Independent firms have been known to gamble on difficult material, especially when it arrives with Oscar potential. But the idea of releasing a provocative pedophilia movie in this time of embattled box office — let alone from a first-time filmmaker such as Andrews — is a different type of challenge.
Daniel Battsek, the head of Film4, said that he believes the movie’s daring is a chief selling point.
“This is a film that deals with very controversial themes but I think in a sensitive and interesting way,” he said. “The bar is really high when you tackle something like this; you need to be on your game in every element of the filmmaking.”
Reaching that stratum wasn’t easy.
Some plays in recent years have struggled in cinematic form, including tour-de-force pieces such as “August: Osage County” and “God of Carnage,” “
Una"—it was produced by Jean Doumanian, Patrick Daly and Maya Amsellem—sought to avoid these pitfalls by taking a more kill-your-darlings approach to the original work. “Blackbird” is essentially a chamber piece, with two characters hashing out the past in a single room. “Una” pries open the story, often taking the action outside the office and stripping away much of the dialogue in favor of haunting, sometimes wordless sequences. It also adds an entirely new final section involving Ray’s co-worker (Riz Ahmed) and an unexpected showdown.
The flashbacks gave filmmakers a tool that was lacking on stage — while the dreaminess of those flashbacks pack a certain sneaky power.
“The claustrophobia of being locked in a room with these two is the thrill of the play, because it’s a great boxing match,” said Andrews, an Australian native who lives in Iceland; the director, making his film debut, is well acquainted with “Blackbird,” having staged it in English and German.
“But my curiosity lay in the opportunity to explore the experience of time, which is the realm of cinema,” he continued. “It’s to juxtapose the girl against the woman; it’s to look at the nature of memory and whether the [people] they were 15 years ago is still buried under the people they are now.”
Mara, having investigated laconic subtlety in the likes of “Carol,” manages to convey an uncommon mixture of tenderness and ferocity. Mendelsohn, the “Bloodline” and “The Dark Knight Rises” actor, offers his brand of human twitchiness that perfectly suits a character whose moral radar keeps slipping from view.
But it’s the subject matter that is likely to generate the most attention. Though the men who worked on the film expressed their desire for sensitivity, it remains to be seen how others, particularly women, will react to it. (Mara was not made available for this piece.)
The filmmakers say they are poised for whatever arrives. in many ways, they say, they are hoping for more debate.
“Yes, it’s statutory rape, that’s a given,” Andrews said. “But what comes after that? What can be unfinished about that? I hope people talk about that as they leave the theater.”
Harrower had a more direct assessment.
“I know we could get pilloried,” he said. “But this is a story that needed to be told.”
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