Una

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*** (out of five)

David Harrower has expanded his internationally successful stage two-hander Blackbird for Benedict Andrews’ film version, now called Una: he gets our two lead characters occasionally out of the factory break room they have their devastating encounter in; he adds more chapters and more “story”; and – most critically – he and Andrews include a huge swathe of flashbacks to the events the characters spent the play recalling, which, if you’ve seen the play, may surprise or even shock you.

Blackbird, the play, is about the confrontation between 27 year old Una and 55 year old Ray; fifteen years ago, when she was 12 and he was 40, they had a three month sexual relationship that ended with his four year imprisonment. Now she has surprised him at his place of work, and the past is going to get dredged up for our somewhat lurid and dreadfully sad entertainment. These are shattered people with shattered lives and seeing each other cannot bring out much good.

Given a fine production, this is a brilliant play. I saw one, under Cate Blanchett’s direction at the Sydney Theatre Company, and it was a profound evening in the theatre. Harrower’s coup de theatre five minutes from the final curtain is jaw-dropping: he brings on an actual twelve year old girl, and suddenly the reality of the relationship we’ve just spent a couple of hours visualising hits home. We’ve been tricked into believing in a love affair, when all that’s really been on stage is the wreckage of crime.

In the film, we see multiple flashbacks of the “affair”, with twelve year old Ruby Stokes playing a young version of Rooney Mara’s older Una. This obviously jettisons the impact the play’s ending had, and the impact of the film as a whole, for the sequences between Ben Mendelsohn’s Ray and Stokes are never as disturbing as that moment allowed our brain to create. It’s a big literal choice that may very well have been the wrong one, and when Andrews tries the trick again, using standard cinematic language, it simply fails. We’re over being shocked about something we’ve already spent three acts being shocked about.

Indeed, considering Andrews made his theatrical reputation as a provocateur, it’s strange how safe Una is. The subject matter is intense, inherently distressing, taboo – but the film backs away from many edges which, frankly, I was expecting it to leap from with gusto. Perhaps I was bringing my own expectations about what a “Benedict Andrews movie” should be, having seen many “Benedict Andrews productions” on stage. The writing here is what pushes the envelope, not the direction.

If he’s unwilling to embrace his inner Gaspar Noé, at least Andrews, making his feature film debut, lets his Kubrick fantasies run wild. He utilises a very cold, formal shooting style and a stark deployment of sound (including Jed Kurzel’s superb creepy score) that evokes the chilly Kubrickian atmospheres of Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure and the cool severity of Shane Carruth. Twice, Andrews deploys a wide-screen symmetrical image, with perhaps a tiny zoom in, to instigate dread, and, given we’ve grown up on The Shining, it works. This style places him in my wheelhouse, and certainly puts him on my director radar. The film is rather slight, but the talent on display carries depth.

In two very tricky roles, Mara and Mendelsohn are compelling and believable, but both performances feel somewhat effortful. Harrower’s dialogue sounds, to my ear and memory, often directly lifted from his stage script, but of course it’s been cut way down, and it feels like the actors feel the burden of filling in the missing lines with physical intensity, as though they’re clenching their guts as they talk. Andrews is famous for his brilliant stage metaphors – in his German production of Blackbird, Ray spilled water and then desperately tried to mop it up, a wonderful little microcosm of his life – but his film is very, very literal, surprisingly so, and unfortunately, to its detriment. Una is stylish and precise, painful and attractive, but it shows us enough to stop us imagining the worst.

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Jason Bourne

JASON-BOURNE

***1/2

This time around Jason Bourne finds himself pitted against… the Director of the CIA. I seem to remember this was the basis of the first Bourne movie, but it’s been an awfully long time. I didn’t see the last one, with Jeremy Renner instead of Matt Damon, but Damon is back in this one, and he’s become very beefy. Bourne is earning a crust bare-knuckle boxing around the fringes of Europe, which isn’t important to the plot in the slightest, but made for an extremely viral-friendly trailer.

Bourne learns a dark secret about his past (specifically, his indoctrination into the CIA’s creepy program) while the CIA itself is having problems with their Facebook-like puppet information-gatherer, Deep Dream. The concept that the CIA funded the world’s major social media company as a young start-up and has been using it to monitor us all ever since is a strong and spooky one, and it’s well played for the first two acts. Unfortunately, this idea – along with almost all logic – goes out the window for the final act, which is ludicrous.

Look, the whole thing is ludicrous, but it’s actually enormous fun. It’s staffed by a realm of really good actors and somehow they make it work. Tommy Lee Jones, as head of the CIA, stares into an awful lot of monitors with blue light bathing his face, and he does it well. Scott Shepherd, following on from his CIA agent in Bridge of Spies, plays the Deputy Director, and, if he wants it, seems to have a career in the Hollywood CIA ahead of him. Alicia Vikander gets to stare into monitors and move around a bit, and she does both well, although her very weird accent suggests she may be Irish. Vincent Cassel plays “The Asset”, which is just cool in every way. Best of all, Riz Ahmed plays the Zuckerberg stand-in with a perfect mix of cockiness and trepidation, a sweet inversion of his character from The Night Of.

Director Paul Greengrass never takes the thing off the boil; the music, in particular, is all peak and no valley, so the whole film feels like one extended action sequence. When it hypes up into an actual action sequence – there are a few vehicular chases, fistfights et al – Greengrass once again, as has always been his wont, cuts it all up into an incoherent mess. It is truly bizarre that this excellent director will not heed our cries to be able to see the chase, follow the fight. At this point, it feels deliberate and belligerent on his part. But he shoots crowds and squares and train stations and other civic centres extremely well, and it is in these that Bourne and The Asset bustle, in London, Athens, Rome and other cool places, giving us a pumped-up, giddily rewarding espionage travelogue, which is pretty much how I remember the first Bourne movie from all those years ago.