Una (Rooney Mara) hides a photo of him under a flap of carpet in the corner of her bedroom. The photo is new — it’s been freshly torn from the pages of a trade magazine — but the bedroom is not. It’s the same bedroom that belonged to her when she was a kid, the same bedroom she slept in when she was 13 and one of her dad’s 40-year-old friends started flirting with her at a barbecue in the backyard. It’s the same bedroom she returned home to after that man stole her away on a trip down the coast of England, the morally dubious couple pretending to be father and daughter as they made their ill-fated break for the border. She never moved out, never grew up. Her body matured to adulthood, but the rest of her was frozen in time, the girl fractured like the face of a broken watch.
Now Una is 28, and she’s found Ray (Ben Mendelsohn). He goes by “Peter” now, but starting a different life hasn’t made him a different man. So Una decides to pay him a visit. She takes a shower, throws on a black trench-coat and a pair of high-heeled clogs, and speeds off in her mother’s car. It’s a pretty long drive to the factory where Ray works, and Una clearly hasn’t thought things out that far — she looks tense and hollow in the rear-view mirror, as though she knows she’s about to see a ghost. When Ray scoots Una into a break room and asks her what she wants, her response is as curt as it is complete: “To see you.”
Remarkably, you take her at her word. You believe, without question, that Una doesn’t know what she’s going to do next. Rooney Mara has a rare gift for impassively conveying some unknown inner turbulence — the steadiness of her sharp features like the calm ocean above a shipwreck — and she often uses it to play every moment as though the next one isn’t predetermined. It’s one of the things she does better than just about any other actor of her generation, and it’s also one of the things that made “Una” filmmaker Benedict Andrews think of her as soon as he began casting his adaptation of David Harrower’s Tony-winning “Blackbird.”
She was completely my first choice,” Andrews told IndieWire at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival last year, where the Australian theater director’s big screen debut played for distributors who weren’t sure what to do with such an urgent and unafraid piece of work. Latin American company Swen eventually picked it up for a U.S. release, but the low-profile release and the difficult subject matter have combined to have made it difficult for Mara’s performance to secure a spot in the awards conversation alongside the likes of Sally Hawkins’s silent turn in “The Shape of Water” and Frances McDormand’s show-stopping work in “Three Billboards Outside of Ebbings, Missouri.” Still, Andrews’ assessment of his lead actress underscores why Mara is eminently deserving of the same attention. “There was something about her that struck so true to me in regards to Una, this woman who is fiercely intelligent and incredibly determined but — at the same time — completely raw and true and tender. Fragility and ferocity: That mixture touched me so deeply.”
For Mara, who can make delicate period melodramas and motormouthed Aaron Sorkin scenes both feel like they’re happening in real-time, this sort of thing just comes naturally. She’s drawn to characters who aren’t defined by their wants, at least not in the schematic way that most screenwriting courses would suggest. The women she embodies are always smart and steely, but Therese Belivet, Lisbeth Salander, Emily Taylor, and most definitely Una are struggling to make peace with what they want and/or wrestling with why they want it. Una’s predicament is perhaps the most fraught of all; she’s a victim of statutory rape, and that particular crime is so cruel for how it can confuse a young person’s mind during the most formative period of their life. “The whole thing is predicated upon the fact that she cannot separate feelings of love and feelings of abuse,” Andrews said, “and so guilt and desire are all mixed up for her. Was it love? Is she capable of love?”
These are the questions that attracted Mara to the material. “When I saw the play in 2007,” she told IndieWire, “that’s what I loved about it: I felt so conflicted. There was a part of me that wanted them to be together, and I was so confused by that feeling — so horrified by that feeling. But that was part of what really drew me to it: It wasn’t this black-and-white thing of ‘victim’ and ‘abuser.’ Life is so much messier than that. Humans are so much messier than that.”
Particularly the ones she likes to play. Mara may love to act, but she hates to pretend, and so she’s drawn to the sort of conflicted women who are often confused for being cold, standoffish, or sulky (adjectives that only become more inaccurate when they’re applied to the actress herself, who’s every bit as present in person as she is on screen). But that’s the price you pay for being so real in a land of make-believe, for having such an intense allergy to bullshit in a world that’s on the brink of forgetting what the truth even looks like. “Generally in life,” she said, “people don’t just easily let go of their emotions and cry. Usually, you’re fighting it. You’re holding it back and don’t want anyone to see what’s going on inside — especially in this day and age, where there’s so much pressure to conform and be perfect. I understand that as an actor. I have to go out and constantly be this sort of politician selling a film and selling myself and also being this really together…” She trailed off, scooping up her legs from the floor and cradling them to her body. “It’s just that most people are doing the same thing, just trying to hold it together or make it look like they’re holding it together.”
Maybe all movie stars are this cognizant of the distance between how complicated people are and how simplistically they tend to see things, but Mara thrives in that blank space, she dives headfirst into a darkness that many performers would rather jump over. For her, it’s hard to fathom any other way of doing things. “To me, that’s just what it is to be human. You go out into the world, and every person out there is fighting some sort of battle that you have no idea about. That’s true for everyone — not just victims of sexual abuse.”
But with victims of sexual abuse, the stakes are obviously raised, and so it’s hardly a surprise that “Una” and “Blackbird” have both drawn criticism for complicating the standard definitions of victim and abuser. The story doesn’t absolve Ray for his actions — not by a long shot — but it definitely recognizes how reductive the conversations surrounding his crime can be, and it pushes back at the idea that nuance is tantamount to forgiveness. If anything, it respects Una’s trauma enough to appreciate that it’s not as simple as the courts (of law and of public opinion) would like to believe. Una knows that what Ray did to her was wrong, but the ultimate cruelty of his affections was that the girl had no basis for comparison; how sadistic to convince a child that this is what love feels like. And yet, she was convinced. And so the “victim” label has never felt natural to Una; it’s as much of a costume to her as the getup she wears to Ray’s workplace.
“So much of it is about identity,” Mara said. “Una has to ask herself who she is, because people have been telling her that she’s one thing her entire life, but she knows that it doesn’t fit. And it’s so confusing for her, even into her twenties. She really has to go figure that out.” The brilliance of Mara’s performance, which shines through a harsh accent and survives being fragmented by flashbacks, is that she humiliates our preconceptions by convincing us that Una herself is still searching for her own truth. Will she ever be made whole? “God,” Mara sighed, “isn’t that the struggle for all of us?”
Andrews likened the character to someone who’s lost in a labyrinth and wending her way back to the source of her pain: “We discussed this idea that she didn’t know what she would do next — you’re dealing with impulses and compulsion and the pull of something that’s simply too deep.” But while Una may have a minotaur on her tail, she still doesn’t know if she’s made the right turn until after she’s rounded each corner.
The movie only works if you can believe in the truth of Una’s rash and increasingly drastic decisions, and Mara sells us on every one of them, a tightrope walker whose act is all the more exciting because she occasionally loses her balance. And when Una swings for the fences in the last third of the film and takes the kind of action that she can’t take back, it feels as natural as anything else because the actress playing her refused to render her own judgment. “A lot of people might think that Una goes crazy at the end there, and I did have a different opinion about that when we started” Mara said, but “maybe she is fucking crazy. Wouldn’t you be crazy if this was your first experience with love and pleasure as a child? At the same time, there’s a lot of stigma about females and survivors acting out like that. We would never talk about a man in the same terms.”
The film is full of moments in which Una seems to surprise herself, none of which is more real or heartbreaking than the character’s response when Ray rebuffs her advances. “Am I too old?” she quivers. At first, it might seem like she’s mocking him, and maybe she is. But as Mara juts her chin up at Mendelsohn and scans her eyes across his face, it’s strikingly clear that Una isn’t someone who has the luxury of asking rhetorical questions. Mirrors are a recurring motif in the film for the same reason, and Mara stares into them with the steadiness of someone who’s looking for her own benefit as much as ours. Una is trying to see her blind spots, trying to reconcile her sexuality with the fact that she’s always been the one to suffer from it. It’s all happening right before our eyes, Mara restoring the immediacy of the play while simultaneously infusing it with the intimacy of a self-portrait.
“The theater offers an invitation into a deep tenderness,” Andrews said, “but Rooney and Ben showed me what the camera can do. These are two of the bravest, honest actors working today. A kind of silence opens up in the film and it trusts that the actors’ eyes and breath and being can tell us more than the language. With Rooney, they always do. There’s no bullshit with her.”
In fact, Andrews felt Mara’s performance to be so extraordinary that it compelled him to retitle the film, even if the change distanced his adaptation from its well-regarded source material. “This is the most embarrassing thing,” he said, Mara blushing in her chair a few feet away, “but when I see Rooney onscreen, there is a great and beguiling beauty there that makes you want to know her. The name ‘Blackbird’ is mysterious in the play, and that’s fine. But watching Rooney while we were cutting the film, I realized that Una is the name that has been burned into Ray’s brain for 15 years, and it’s the name that the person it belongs to never got to change. Those three letters became an invitation to this singular woman, and Rooney made her real.”
Una it is, then.