“…complex…”, “…no easy answers…”, “…raises a ton of legitimate questions…”, “…never offers a straightforward…definition of what makes…a monster or a victim”, 89% overall rating on the well regarded aggregator website, “Rotten Tomatoes” – it would seem that Una, the debut feature film from Benedict Andrews (adapted from David Harrower’s 2005 play, Blackbird, by the playwright himself), has been an overwhelmingly universal success in the eyes of most film critics.
However, as I walked away after a screening of the film, rather than being full of contradictory feelings and thoughts that many critics would believe I should be, I was full of concern about the nature of intention in the creative endeavour.
(BEWARE: SPOILERS AHEAD)
Make no mistake, Una is a highly assured construct of cinematic artifice. At it’s best it is mesmerising and unnerving, driven by solid direction, cinematography and editing. And, narratively, it certainly keeps you glued and guessing for the majority of the film’s neat ?? minute duration. The artistic skill on display from everyone involved, including the performances from Rooney and Mendelsohn (and, to my mind, the deeply underrated Ruby Stokes as young Una), is not up for question. My deep concern, however, is all to do with intention: that is, why are we watching this story? What, exactly, is the point?
Let me quickly get my opinion of the story out of the way: Ray/Peter is a rapist, that simple (and possibly a paedophile), whether he knows/accepts it or not. To my mind, all evidence, both in the script and on the screen, points to this conclusion: Ray/Peter’s sexual struggles both with adult Una and his wife; his constant lying about important matters during the course of the film (importantly, that he is a stepfather); the sketchy nature of his explanations and alibis; and, in particular, Ray/Peter’s complete lack of empathy for Una’s state of mind (calling her “crazy” and “mad”) – in fact, his only references to emotions are to his own, as well as Una’s erratic behaviour.
Of course the narrative is smarter than my simple statement of belief. Ray/Peter is a sympathetic character, a ‘reformed’ man. He’s a hardworking man, with a new life, and a wife – who, in fact, is older than him (well, he can’t be a pedophile then, can he?). He’s a moral man, a man who won’t put career advancement ahead of his relationship with his work colleagues. So, the writer and director are not making this easy for the audience. They’re being oh-so-clever with the narrative in an attempt to raise doubts and make the story more ‘complex’.
The problem, however, is that no matter which way you decide to view this film – as a story about the complexity of sexuality, or as an exploration of the cunning nature of paedophilia – the question is still the same: why? Why are we watching this? What is the thematic purpose of this work? To understand that pedophiles are clever liars and excuse makers? Well, pardon my colloquialism, but DURRRRRRRRRRRRR!!! And, if the filmmakers are genuinely trying to say that sometimes things are complex between grown, adult men and young, prepubescent girls, then we have an even bigger problem on our hands.
Either way you cut it, it still comes back to ‘why’? What is the artistic/creative intent of all involved? As actors – well, as Ben Mendelsohn, in particular – I can understand the need not to judge the character. That’s an important, if difficult part in playing challenging roles well. The real question is why tell this story at all? For now, let’s give credit to the filmmakers and say they’re trying to show us just how manipulative pedophiles can be by first looking at the titular character of Una.
Una is clearly a damaged figure. She is remote, withdrawn, and would seem to be engaging in anonymous and possibly unsafe sex practices. Rooney Mara’s casting here is crucial, all this being well and truly in the wheelhouse of the ethereal actor. As we soon learn, she is deeply unhappy with her lot in life, and she believes this is all the doing of Ray/Peter, and their ‘relationship’.
So many concerns immediately come to mind for me: the somewhat cliched nature of Una and her damage (far be it from me to say this isn’t the outcome for many people who are abused, but film is artifice, and there are probably smarter, more empathetic ways to show us the legacy of Ray/Peter’s actions); her, at times, almost fond remembrance of their ‘relationship’ (again, in reality this happens, to all of us, but film is not reality, it is representative, so what is being represented here?); and the fact/concern that this is a film written and directed by men, about something a man did to a girl.
Then there is Ray/Peter himself. Yes, he’s a sympathetic character, but the filmmakers have his number, and are smart enough to leave plenty of gaps in his ‘story’, with enough wiggle room that attentive viewers can see him for what he is: a rapist and possibly a serial paedophile. The problem, of course, is regardless of how clever this is, the small amount of wiggle room works the other way too, leaving enough room for doubt. It could be fairly argued that maybe Ray/Peter isn’t as ‘guilty’ as his punishment (4 years in gaol for Statutory Rape) would suggest, and that their ‘relationship’ was misunderstood by traditional social moraes.
Worse still, what are we to make of the film’s final moments, when he is granted the last words, and those words include “You were my only one”. A final, weak protest, perhaps? Maybe. Nonetheless, why is the perpetrator getting the last final say? What does that say about his guilt (surely it raises more doubt for some), given the weight it’s granted simply by being the last line of the film?
And what are we to make of Una’s silence at the end? Agreement? Even one of the most controversial of ‘inappropriate relationship’ plays/films, David Mamet’s Oleanna, for all its ‘middle class, white man rage’ (though nowhere near as repellent as David Williamson’s Brilliant Lies), ends with the unequivocal couplet (from the play script – the screenplay is probably even less ambiguous):
John: I wouldn’t touch you with a ten-foot pole, you little cunt…
Carol: Yes. That’s right.
…yes. That’s right.
Then there is the fact that Una was written by a man (David Harrower, from his 2005 play, Blackbird), and, perhaps more importantly, directed by a man (Benedict Andrews) – for in the end, in film, it is the director who interprets the story. Given the nature of the subject, it’s a bold decision for a man to speak for a woman’s experience – particularly, again, given the specifics of this story (i.e. the potential for moral ambiguity).
Not to say that a man can’t write from a woman’s perspective (or the reverse), or a black woman can’t write about a white woman’s experience – imagination (with some research) is a powerful thing. But you will always leave yourself open to criticism if you make that choice, and if you then seem to be say, ‘You know, things aren’t always that straightforward’, and you’re discussing statutory rape, well, then you really need to ask yourself one question (and answer it): Why? In telling this story in this particular way, what am I trying to say?
In the case of Una, the filmmakers do seem to be saying that Ray/Peter is guilty as charged (and maybe worse), but if that’s their aim then the next question must be, “So what?” Why make a film, loaded with so much potential for misreading, to say ‘Statutory rapists are very cunning and fundamentally bad’? Do they actually believe their potential viewing audience (undoubtedly fairly urbane and educated and – given that the story began life as a play – middle class) doesn’t already know that? Really? And by loading it with so much ambiguity at times – the real concern here – the filmmakers are treading on dangerous ground: allowing people to come to the conclusion that, yes, regardless of her age, Una knew what she was doing, sought out the attention of the much older Ray/Peter, and was happy when their relationship became sexual.
If we consider this possibility that the filmmakers are saying that sometimes relationships are more complex than ‘simple’ charges of statutory rape, and that Una was complicit in the ‘relationship’ and her own downfall, then we’re in an altogether different space. Of course, in real life, these things happen, and young people who go through these experiences sometimes, as adults, look back with mixed emotions.
I had experiences with much older girls (not adults, I should clarify) who took advantage of their position over me to sexually experiment (maybe many men have, I’ve actually never asked anyone). I have always made light of these incidents, because at the time I enjoyed the attention and the act itself (though at times I was also a little scared). But the more I think about it, the more I believe that these nascent (unwanted?…) sexual experiences had, for some time, a very deep and subtle impact on my relationship to women and sex. Even so, I would in no way feel qualified – or compelled – to tell Una’s story in the way I saw it told.
My other experience is that many women I’ve known well – perhaps all women I’ve intimately known – have experienced various forms of sexual harassment and abuse, ranging from touching and fondling, all the way through to penetrative acts. And not one of them was confused about the nature of this act: it was abuse. Unwanted, unwarranted, unacceptable sexual abuse. Neither David Harrower nor Benedict Andrews are women, and while they may have had their own experiences of abuse (my understanding is that Harrower’s primary influence for writing Blackbird was the 2003 case of a US Marine online grooming and abduction of a 12 year old girl), they are not women, thus they simply cannot have the same experience as Una (or actual real women in real life), regardless of how much empathy they have for the character, or sympathy for her experience.
You see, in real life we can sit around a bar, an outdoor setting, a therapist’s office, if need be, and talk and debate with one another, and, importantly, be more informed and have our opinions altered. But Una is a film, and film is a monologue, not a conversation. You’re ‘making a statement’ about something, either declarative or interrogative. In the case of Una, this statement would seem to be that sexual predators are clever and dangerous. But there is also a ‘B story’ going on, one that is far too clever (may I never again have to type ‘far too clever’ again), and one that would seem to question the victim’s role in the criminal act perpetrated upon them.
Because, in the end, that’s exactly what it comes down to: perpetrator; victim; crime. In this film, Una was thirteen when Ray/Peter abused his power over her (yup, that’s exactly what he did). I’ll say that again: she was a 13 year old child. She can imagine whatever she likes about her readiness for such a situation, but she is a child, and as such she does not have the legal right to make that decision. She cannot consent – pure and simple. And if she cannot consent, then it is rape – something a mature, mentally balanced, adult man should and must understand.
Which, if we accept this to be clear fact, brings us right back to the premise of this post: why? Why put all that time, money, and effort into this film? What is the intent of the artists involved, if they believe the above to be an inalienable truth? What new or interesting truth does Una bring to the subject of rape and child sexual abuse?
To my mind, not much (though it’s clever, and visually beautiful, with solid performances). But what’s more concerning is in (probably) wanting to tell a smart story about an important issue, the filmmakers have created too much doubt, both about their intentions and their thoughts on the matter of child sexual abuse, as well as potential doubts in the mind of the viewer (‘well, she did seem to want what happened to her…’). And what value is there in that? Why embark on such a process when the risk of this outcome is so patently obvious? For art’s sake? I should fucking hope not!
Is it every artist’s right to tell the stories they want to tell with the legal framework of the nation state in which they live? Of course. Is it important, at times, for artists to challenge social moraes? I certainly think so. Does anyone actually believe that this includes questioning the culpability of the victim in sexual crime, or the very nature of statutory rape? I seriously doubt it.
It’s hard not to feel like some kind of moral curmudgeon. Remember how great feminist writers and thinkers like Andrea Dworkin (and no, I’m in no way comparing myself to Andrea Dworkin!) ended up on the same side of the moral street as very conservative Christian public figures on the matter of pornography? Uncomfortable bedfellows, that’s for certain. I feel a little like that. Like criticising ‘free and open art’ puts me on the same end of the scale with the Westboro Baptist Church.
I’ll attempt to balance the ledger with the late introduction of another film that explores the outcomes of child sexual abuse, and one, at the time of its release, that garnered serious, and at times highly critical attention (and the threat of ban in Australia), but also almost universal praise from film critics: Gregg Araki’s 2005 Mysterious Skin (based on the 1995 novel of the same name by Scott Heim). The film explores the very different, but no less damaged lives of two men, abused by a local baseball coach.
The ‘controversy’ around the film centred on the film’s main character, a rent boy, whose recollections of the abuse are outwardly positive. He believes that his baseball coach helped him discover his true identity, and claims throughout the film that the experience was an overwhelmingly affirmative one. His current life, however, would seem to indicate things are not so simple, and eventually he is confronted by his complicity in, and the terrible ramifications of, the abuse of a school friend he lured to his coach.
Regardless, Mysterious Skin is a far superior meditation on sexual abuse. While, like Una, it is a complex story, it’s success is not due to the clever depiction of the antagonist (the baseball coach is almost a peripheral figure, depicted in familiar terms, which also plays a part of the film’s success) who argues his way out of the truth. Rather, it is due to the focus on the abused, the characters who actually matter. It doesn’t avoid the difficult conversations – far from it: Mysterious Skin is probably a far more challenging film because it embraces the conversation, and doesn’t resort to clever writing and intellectual game playing. Could it also have something to do with the nature of the source material (the novelist is openly gay), and the fact that Araki is bisexual himself? Seems possible. Aah! There’s that real life again.
Speaking of real life, and in the spirit of full disclosure, I am the father of two adult (ish…) daughters, so it’s fair to say that I’ve skin in the game (though as thinking, decent humans, shouldn’t we all?). All this makes me remember hearing Steven Spielberg once say that if he’d made Close Encounters of the Third Kind post-children, he would never had Richard Dreyfus leave his family behind and board the spaceship. A duller ending? Maybe. But it’s interesting how artist’s outlook on their craft change as their actual lived experience change. Another way to think of it is relevant experience. As an artist, with the intention of exploring ‘riskier’ subjects, do you have the relevant experience to explore the matter with the requisite sensitivity? If not, then what is it about the subject that interests you? Intellectual curiosity? Creative stimulation? Perhaps, sometimes, that simple isn’t enough.
I wonder if either Benedict Andrews or David Harrower have 13 year old daughters?