Una: Twists and Turns In Facing Up Abuse

Larissa Oliveira
5 min readMay 6, 2018
Rooney Mara and Ben Mendelsohn as victim and abuser, respectively,in Benedict Andrews’ Una (2016)

The first impression that I had when I started watching Una was that I was facing another adaptation from Nabovok’s deviant novel, Lolita. Published more than 60 years ago, it tells the story of a sadist narrator called Humbert,who tricks the audience leading them to believe that his perverse obsession for a much younger girl, a 12-year-old girl,Dolores Haze, better known as Lolita, is actually love. The last days of Lolita are agonizing: she is only 17 when she died giving birth to a child that is not Humpert’s. She was living in poor conditions and we are led to understand that the same applied psychologically. This story is told by an erudite and privileged man. We are only able to understand her world through his point of view. It is with this century’s movie Una,directed by Benedict Andrew, that I was able to visualize what could possibly be like if Nabokov’s narrative was told by a woman. We can’t ignore the fact that as much as it is important to see females’ narratives through their own voices, most works are still created by men. We can applaud Benedict Andrews’ initiative, as well as Nabovok’s in telling two stories about child abuse, in which one of their intention is to show how perverted men can be. Unfortunately, some people have romanticized Lolita to an extent that desiring kids, preteens as some wish to call, has become reasonably acceptable, depending on the context, and worse, there has been a great sexualization of young girls in media, like Tumblr. Besides, it’s dangerous to assume mature nuances to a quite young girl and to use that as if she is already a grown woman. In Una, Ben Mendelsohn plays Ray, a neighbor friends with Una’s father who visits their house a couple of times. He gets impressed by how she is impetuous and fearless. She resembles Lolita a lot in this way, but unlike this one, Una is not for a single moment sexualized for the audience. If you are familiar with Kubrick’s adaptation of Nabokov’s novel, then you can recall a movie poster in which the protagonist wears heart-shaped glasses and licks a lollipop.

A 13-year-old Una and Ray. The flashbacks of their 3 month relationship have no hint of romance, unlike Lolita and Humbert’s.

The adult Una appears to us as an unstable woman, having sex with strangers and without emotional strings. Her young version is introduced to us by a tape of her at the court — we later find out that Ray served prison time for his crime —with PJ Harvey’s Down by the Water playing on the background as a theme song for the movie, which can provoke some possible interpretations. One of them is of a girl being drowned by an older one, like a mother drowning a daughter. The imagery of this song may symbolize Una’s adult version trying to get rid of her young self. The turns that her life has taken because of the abuse has made her miserable, and there’s much attachment of her past self. As much as she wants to track Ray down and confront him, eventually we find out that Una still has feelings for him. And this is the troubling twist of the movie. Its unusual approach boosts different reactions and discussions. Through a feminist discussion, the victim confrontation is heatlhy if he/she/ or any other gender taken into consideration*, puts the abuser in his/hers/* place. In other words, to fight back in order to not be a mere victim. There have been many cases in which women, men and * have spoken out about their abuse. The reencountering between Una and Ray was initially led by her will to revenge on the privileged turns that his life has taken while hers is a wreck. It’s important to highlight Una’s initial attitude. She did not fear Ray and made important statements of how damaged he left her, she is convinced that it was not love, it was rape. I imagined that if Lolita had her own voice and a chance to have survived in the novel, she could have figured out how sick her life had been due to a pervert man. I liked the fact that the protagonist’s name is Una because the stories of many people who have gone through abuse could become, for a moment, one.

A vexed Rooney Mara confronts a serene Ben Mendelsohn. The actings give a perfect dimension of how abuse traumatizes the victim while it doesn’t have the same effect in the perpetrator

Despite being realistic concerning Ray’s true nature (she claims that he is in fact a pedophile) he says that he’s not like ‘’the others’’. We definitely stand with her, however, her realistic view has not come along with emotional stability. In some cases, it is hard for a victim to dissociate from the traumatic bonding that he/she/* has created with the abuser. Una is a turmoil of confusion and has no control of her life. That’s a familiar condition for those who don’t overcome traumas. She invades Ray’s personal life and stalks his wife. She sleeps with his co-worker just to know where his house is. I believe that Benedict Andrews intended to contrast the long-term effects of abuse in both sides. Altough Ray displays signs of regret, he doesn’t see his crime as it was, but as something close to love. As they talk to each other, intimate details of their past come up and both try to have sex but it doesn’t work out. I found this greatly uncomfortable, but later I thought that this scene represented to what degree both characters are disturbed and far from being stable.

Una is a turmoil of confusion and has no control of her life. That’s a familiar condition for those who don’t overcome traumas

In the same day that they met again, Ray throws a fancy party, showing that he keeps a status before society. When Una enters his house, she is seen as dangerous and told that she should walk out of there immediately. If we read this as the way victims are treated by society, it’s possible to come to terms that they are helpless and should be on their own. A woman’s chance to narrate a story of abuse ends with her being seen as mad by the eyes of those who are privileged, including Ray, who is unscathed. As strange as it seems, Una is one of many stories that portray offender’s privilege in relation to the victim. While many critics focused on its flawed format, its unusual turn in the plot has to be taken into consideration even in feminists discussion, because after all, feminism doesn’t make women victims. Sexism does.

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Larissa Oliveira

Brazilian writer, teacher and zinester. Articles related to cinematic content. I also write for https://medium.com/@womenofthebeatgeneration_