Thursday 8 June 2017

Sydney Film Festival (4) - UNA (Benedict Andrews, UK, Canada, USA)

A viewing of this movie comes via some fog and baggage. Way, way back in 2005 I saw a Sydney Theatre Company production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. It has remained in my mind ever since. Normally it takes two and half hours or so to run through this historical pageant but on this occasion after two hours we had barely reached half way. An interval was called and about three quarters of the crowd headed for the exits, not to be seen again, at least on this particular evening. Those who returned were greeted with the sight of Marc Anthony’s camp in the desert, the dozen or so actors slumbering on the set and hundreds of unlit candles decorating tables. An actor rose and started to light the candles. Then another did the same.

At this point, mounting horror in the audience, it was realised that the show was not going on until every one of the candles had been ignited. It took, from memory, a good ten minutes or so of very languid and utterly pointless movement. Eventually a couple more hours later the residue of the audience was allowed out into the street. It was without doubt, the worst performance of Shakespeare I’ve ever seen, indeed probably the worst production I’ve ever seen presented by the Sydney Theatre Company. The director of this shambles was the then 33 years old Benedict Andrews, these days now one of those theatre wunderkinds in great demand around the world from his home base in Reykjavik for productions of classics, operas, new work by adventurous writers and now a movie.

Now Benedict Andrews name is on the credits as the director of Una,  a 95 minute feature film, his first, made with British, Canadian and US money. It premiered at Telluride last September and is having its Australian  premiere 'in competition' at the SFF. As I said, I'm bringing baggage to this assessment.The film is scripted by David Harrower and is based on his play Blackbird, a two-hander first performed in 2005. Opening the drama out to extend to peripheral characters, tinkering with time and juxtaposing between memory and the present, Una on screen has a creepy disturbing quality largely due to the construct of Rooney Mara’s title character, a collection of tropes that don't always cause you to think that this is a 'real' person. Too many contradictions are loaded into the character, especially towards the end, as both child and adult. After setting the scene over the first half, Una tracks down her abuser Ray (Ben Mendelsohn), the plot arc takes off into some psychopathology when Una offers sex on the office lunch room floor. She and the befuddled Ray, reunited after 15 years, have till then participated into what seems a long night of wariness on his part, bickering and confession. All the time Ray’s boss and another workmate are running round a huge warehouse, trying to implicate him in some staff sackings. All this comes some time after a very first scene, almost abstract, when Una is seen having stand up sex, face slammed into a mirror, in a nightclub toilet before returning home alone at dawn. 

Benedict Andrews, provocateur, has moved to expand his expertise. I’m not sure that a great level of excitement is generated by the first results on show in Una though the film's publicity material (see left) suggests some positive reception at its festival screenings at Telluride, Toronto and London. Still there are some intriguing elements for credit watchers and those who look for oddity. Most notable is the casting of Ben Mendelsohn who delivers his lines in his ‘normal’ Australian accent. It may be that we are being directed away from contemplating this situation as some form of English disease, away from the sheer Englishness of the kind that reeks all over another recent Brit offering, The Sense of an EndingI, a film with so much precise location, so much exactitude, that it takes an enormous length of time to tell what seems like a very short story. In Una no explanation is offered as to where we are but for the moment on the beach on the English Channel when Ray and the young Una contemplate escape to France. You have to assume its another of Andrews' and his writer's tropes just to keep you a little off-centre. This does however cause one to ask, finally, just what exactly was the task given to the person credited, way, way down, as the “Dialect Coach”.

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