Two very different films about child abuse are among the picks of this year’s Sydney Film Festival (7-18 June).
Benedict Andrews first feature film, UNA, is a taut tale of sexual obsession.
Based on David Harrower’s play Blackbird, the screenplay has been written by the playwright.
The events of the summer when Una was thirteen still exert a tremendous, magnetic pull on her, thirteen years later.
Thirteen years ago, the thirteen year old Una waited for the much older Ray in a hotel room. Ray was her next door neighbour and Una had run away with Ray, they had sex for the first time, and the he appeared to have loved and left her.
Now, thirteen years later, Una tracks Ray, now known as Peter, to his workplace, neither to condemn or condone, but to confront.
What happened between Ray and Una should never have happened, but what happened transformed and shattered their lives. They are left to piece together their broken lives and to reflect on how their lives might be repaired. True to life, there are no easy answers.
The main characters names bear special significance in this film. Ray got to change his – he’s now called Peter- but Una has lived with hers. Una, translated from the Latin, means one.The core question for Una, throughout the course of her journey in the film is…Was I the only one?”
In the title role, Rooney Mara gives us a brittle and damaged Una, with deep seated feelings of being forsaken.
As Ray, Ben Mendelsohn is marvellous. He is not a paedophile, nor a predator, certainly not a Humbert Humbert of Lolita fame, but a man caught up in a passion, ill conceived, illogical, illicit and illegal, however, not a monster, just humanly erring.
The film has been broadened from the stage play, opened out, and in flashback we see the love affair burgeon, particularly from Una’s viewpoint. Ruby Stokes as the young Una is splendid, precocious but not predatory or manipulative.
It makes it even more uncomfortable, more morally and emotionally complicated for an audience to see this relationship develop. It makes it more challenging and more touching too.
Benedict Andrews’ creative team boasts a significant line-up of international talent: Director of Photography Thimios Bakatakis lenser of THE LOBSTER, Ozzie Production Designer Fiona Crombie , Costume Designer Steven Noble , clothier of THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING, award-winning Editor, Nick Fenton , and Ozzie Composer Jed Kurzel.
UNA refuses to condemn or condone Una or Ray, and so confronts audiences and commands their attention
Condemnation comes much easier in THE TEACHER where a seemingly passionate and kind teacher uses her pupils to manipulate their parents for her own personal benefit, whether for material gain or even the promise of a romantic affair. Concerned about the school performance of their beloved children, most parents succumb to the pressure and provide the teacher with various services and gifts. Three families, however, decide to take a stand and try to remedy the situation together with the school head teacher at a clandestine parent meeting.
Although set in the early 1980s, THE TEACHER tells a universal story that could happen any time and anywhere… at least as long as corruption, pettiness, and selfishness still rule the world.
“All adults and most children have experienced the feeling where something that might benefit you now might also be the wrong thing to do. Or the other way around: that following your conscience or moral code may be difficult or very disadvantageous. That’s why this story is understandable to everyone,” says director Jan Hřebejk.
Zuzana Mauréry as the teacher presents as sugar and spice with a subcutaneous steel core, considering her students as servants and slaves, assigning as her housework as their homework. Instead of vocabulary and valency she assigns vacuuming. Good grades are given for grovelling, failure to comply converts to poor marks.
The abuse of power is symbiotic of child abuse, and such abuse thrives and proliferates in an environment of fear and opportunism. The TEACHER teaches us to stand our ground for human dignity and steadfastly disabuse the abuser.
Featured image – Rooney Mara in the title role in UNA.