Una

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There are understandably few films that include reference to the sexual abuse of minors. Of those that do have it as a key plot point many mention it as a last act revelation, revealing that it is something a character has suffered from in their youth. This is certainly the case with The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Short Term 12 and Chinatown. By contrast mainstream movies have long seemed more comfortable putting physical or mental child abuse front and centre in their stories, as with Carrie, Good Will Hunting, Mommie Dearest and Psycho. There are movies such as A Time to Kill, Sleepers, Spotlight, The Colour Purple and Primal Fear that are prepared to tackle sexual abuse of children before the closing moments, but they tend to actually be more focused on something else; the court case or the investigation or the revenge plot or the triumph over adversity. Child sex abuse is clearly an unpleasant and awkward subject matter and you could argue that it is a daring film maker who sets out to tackle the subject head on. You could also argue that doing so also demands a certain amount of responsibility.

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Director Benedict Andrews and writer David Harrower’s movie Una revolves around the meeting, after fifteen years, of a woman and the older man who had sex with her when she was thirteen. Sure enough it is a deeply discomforting film and in many respects the whole project is indeed brave. Interestingly though the stance the film takes is demonstrably neutral. Obviously no effort is made to legitimise acting on paedophilia but the man in question, played by Ben Mendelsohn, tries to distance himself from being a paedophile saying he ‘was never one of those’ and by having him do this it is possible to think that the film is also guilty of this dangerous compartmentalisation. The fact is the movie does not condemn him either. It is left to the audience to make their own decisions which seems curious when surely there is no decision to make.

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Similarly the girl/woman, Rooney Mara’s Una, is portrayed as having made bad choices, both as a young teenager and now, and once again the viewer is left to make up their mind about the character. In this case it is as to whether she should take some blame for her actions or whether she was, and remains, a victim of sordid manipulation. Once again, most film makers would be as reluctant to lay any possibility of responsibility on the victim as they would be unhesitant in condemning the abuse. What Andrews and Harrower, and indeed Mendelsohn and Mara, have done here is certainly bold and possibly even irresponsible. 

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If the film refuses to take a stand then the need for it to make a point is even greater. Here it is also deficient. It highlights how the man in this scenario has been able to serve his time in prison and move on but the woman has not. This is a powerful statement but it doesn’t feel like enough. The movie isn’t really saying anything, there is no resolution, there is no revenge, no redemption, no release and no challenge to any societal convention which allows this kind of thing to continue.

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Of course, this again is deliberate on the part of the director and writer but it is hard to be satisfied with this when such a nasty crime and such psychological damage has occurred. They seem to be saying it is not their place to judge but to that I say why not? 

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The film is adapted from Harrower’s own play and you can see that on stage the central conversation between the two would have been disturbingly compelling. For me though it didn’t work on screen. In trying to make the narrative more cinematic they have added a final coda away from the single room setting but it actually adds nothing and it ends frustratingly. If anything it only further confuses where the audience sympathies are supposed to settle. They have also put in flashbacks to the time at which the abuse was taking place which, for good or for bad, just makes it more unpleasant to watch.

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The performances from Mendelsohn and Mara are superb. Mara in particular shows great strength and vulnerability. Also, anything that raises awareness of child abuse and the long term suffering it causes for the victims and their families has merit. I think I respect what the people behind this were trying to do and it is better for not being too obviously preachy and heavily indignant but still Una feels like a missed opportunity. It could have been more powerful and more important.

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Is this one for the kids?
Una is rated 15. I fear that any teen watching it who is directly or peripherally caught up in similar circumstances to those referred to on screen may not really find it helpful. I want to acknowledge though that there are others far more qualified to make this call than me.

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The Ripley Factor:
It is very disappointing that a film portraying a fragile woman damaged by sexual abuse should have two totally unnecessary shots of Rooney Mara’s bare breasts.

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