“How did they ever make a film of ‘Lolita’?” reads the tagline beside that famous red lollipop. The answer: They didn’t. Back in 1962, the subject of pedophilia was far too controversial for Hollywood, as industry censors insisted that no one depict “any inference of sex perversion,” nor the “deliberate seduction of girls” on-screen, leaving Stanley Kubrick and his team to dance around a love that dared not speak its name. More than half a century later, David Harrower’s 2005 play “Blackbird” pulls no punches in engaging with the same subject, while the film adaptation — called “Una,” after its lead character, a young woman determined to rekindle things with the pervy next-door neighbor who seduced her 15 years earlier — pushes the envelope even farther.
Needless to say, “Una” is not an easy film to watch, in part because it deals with not just the act of pedophilia (never depicted outright) but also its consequences, exposing the raw wounds still seething long after the inappropriate relationship has ended. When Una (Rooney Mara, playing a girl every bit as damaged as the one with the dragon tattoo) unzips the creep she never stopped loving (Ben Mendelsohn, a master of moral ambiguity), it’s hard not to imagine a contingent of the audience deciding they’ve seen enough — as occurred at the Telluride Film Festival, where this firecracker had its world premiere.
But then, “Una” is intended to push our buttons. Even without the Lolita angle, it would be a tough sit, focusing on a love affair in which at least one party never stopped caring. While Harrower’s play begins with the scene in which Mendelsohn’s Ray pulls Una into his company break room, so as to avoid causing a scene when she confronts him at work, this intriguingly cinematic interpretation from Australian theater director Benedict Andrews opens with a handful of disjointed moments beforehand. We see 13-year-old Una (Ruby Stokes, clearly an actress with potential) sitting on a swing in her front yard, her innocence still intact. Then we flash forward to discover the woman she has become (Mara, of course), doing the “walk of shame” back to the same house after a torrid shag in a nightclub toilet stall.
Here is a woman who no longer values her own sexuality, but recognizes its power over others. Her heart still belongs to the man who robbed her of the ability to experience intimacy — hauntingly revealed via a courtroom video deposition — and when Una stumbles across a news clipping with his photo, she decides to pay him a visit. Ray has since served his time, changed his name, and gotten married, though the impersonal manufacturing plant in which he works suggests a life without meaning since she left.
In transposing “Blackbird” to the real world (if the highly stylized settings, rendered all the more otherworldly by Jed Kurzel’s ethereal harmonic-tone score, could be considered as such), Andrews has opened up Harrower’s one-act play ever so slightly, giving Ray a colleague (Riz Ahmed), a boss (Tobias Menzies), and a wife (Natasha Little) to add dimension to his character — and hers. And yet, he’s lost something in the way he directs Mara, who brings such a different energy from Allison Pill or Michelle Williams, who played Una on Broadway (acting opposite Jeff Daniels in two separate productions).
In Mara’s hands, Una isn’t just damaged; she’s crazy. Her fixation on Ray is so intense that we almost feel sorry for him. He may have ruined her life by promising to take her away to Europe and then abandoning her in a small-town bed and breakfast, but there’s no question that she would ruin his if he only invited this simultaneously brittle and determined femme fatale back into his life. Somehow, that notion plays more effectively on stage than it does on screen, where the hypothetical becomes concrete through the documentary power of film (two long monologues in which the characters recall their last night together feel more truthful when accompanied by flashbacks, for example), augmented by the at-times-painful intimacy of the closeup.
Here, Mara’s eyes speak volumes, conveying the profound emptiness Una feels without him, while virtually erasing the possibility that she may have the upper hand, manipulating him to see if she was his only victim — or if there have perhaps been others (though the movie still manages to explore that ambiguity in different ways). In theater, this sort of confrontation needn’t feel nearly so sadistic — it could all be taking place in one or the other’s head, for example — but on screen, “Una” feels every bit as twisted as films like “Hard Candy” (in which Ellen Page turns the tables on a sexual predator she meets online) and “The 24th Day” (a highly problematic AIDS-panic play in which an HIV-positive guy seeks revenge on the man he’s convinced infected him). It’s as if instead of showing “Lolita” from Humbert Humbert’s p.o.v., little Dolores Haze had grown up and taken matters into her own hands.