When properly staged, David Mamet’s sexual harassment drama Oleanna disturbs and provokes because it presents truth as something ambiguous and slippery. Una and Ray could be the other side of the coin. The truth of their forbidden relationship was pretty well established in court. Yet, they persist in similar forms of denial and self-deceit. After years apart, they will finally face each other again in Benedict Andrews’ Una (trailer here), adapted by David Harrower from his own play Blackbird, which opens this Friday in New York.
When she was thirteen, Una was seduced into a sexual relationship by Ray, her father’s friend and next-door neighbor. He hardly looked the dashing sort, but Una was convinced she loved him. In fact, she was willing to run off to the Continent with him, where this kind of relationship is apparently more readily accepted. However, the events of that fateful night will be the only significant points of contention of their problematic affair. Believing he had abandoned her, Una panicked, which led to his arrest and conviction, resulting in a scandal that tarnished them both.
Fifteen years later, Una chanced across his photo in a newspaper. Having changed his name to Peter Trevelyan, Ray started a new life with a wife and co-workers who knew nothing of his past, whereas Una remained the notorious girl who ran off with the lecherous neighbor. She will show up unannounced at the manufacturing plant where he works as a middle-manager, perhaps to expose him or perhaps to rekindle what she thought they had. She probably does not know herself. Either way, her presence will deeply disturb Ray/Peter.
On film, Una is largely a two-hander, but there is still a significant part to be played by Scott, one of “Trevelyan’s” direct reports, who becomes a pawn in their emotional chess game. Still, the heart and guts of the film consist of their raw face-to-face confrontations in the company’s ironically pristine break room. (It won’t look so tidy when they finish with it.)
There is some tough stuff in this film, but it is clear why actors would jump at the chance to play such viscerally dramatic confrontations. Credit is therefore due to Rooney Mara and Ben Mendelsohn, who do right by Harrower’s text, pushing themselves and each other, while always keeping it real. Forget the ill-conceived Dragon Tattoo remake (assuming you haven’t already), because Una represents some of Mara’s career best work, along with Charlie McDowell’s ridiculously underappreciated The Discovery. The word volatile does not begin to describe her, but there are no shticky Streepian excesses to be seen in her portrayal. Instead, she is tightly, even dangerously restrained. There is an intensity to her work that suggests she could explode at any second.
Likewise, Mendelsohn makes Trevelyan or whoever you want to call him frighteningly human, especially his desperate survival imperative. Riz Ahmed wisely opts for an understated approach as poor clueless Scott, but his work humanizes and anchors the film. It is also rather mind-blowing to see Tara Fitzgerald, once a romantic co-lead in Hugh Grant comedies, playing Una’s uptight mother Andrea. She is perfectly fine in an absolutely thankless role.