Starring: Rooney Mara, Ben Mendelsohn, Riz Ahmed, Ruby Stokes
Directed by: Benedict Andrews
Written by: David Harrower
Running time: 93 mins
UK Release Date: September 1st 2017
In 2006, Jodhi May and Roger Allam starred in a West End play called Blackbird, which was a sensation. David Harrower’s play was an intense, claustrophobic two hander about the effects of an affair between a 12-year-old girl and an adult man 15 years on. He went to prison, she cannot move on, and she turns up to his workplace to – well, what? Find closure? Thump him in the face? Tell him she still loves him? All of those things?
Blackbird took one of the biggest taboos in our country and looked at it from every point of view. It’s unthinkable, but maybe, just maybe, a man can genuinely love a 12-year-old girl, and perhaps she can love him back. It’s clearly illegal, and he ends up in prison, but he seems to have pieced his life back together – what about her? Is he even interested in the adult version of her?
There is a huge problem with this film adaptation of Harrower’s play, which is the use of flashbacks. In Blackbird we were in a room with May and Allam, and that was it – no escape, no easy way out. When they talked about their affair we had to imagine a 12-year-old girl. Here we get to see her, all too often, and it breaks the spell, as well as making for a very queasy feeling. The film even risks an obvious Lolita homage, when she turns around from her sunbed and smiles. No fault of the excellent Ruby Stokes, but when we actually see the 13-year-old Una smiling at Ray (Ben Mendelsohn) while wearing a bikini, it means the complex relationship spelled out in the play is reduced to a far more simplistic atmosphere. One scene, where we see Una hide in a bush in the park, shortly followed by Ray, is truly stomach-churning.
Ironically these flashbacks never help overcome the other main weakness – the obvious staginess of the film. The main action takes places in a bleak break area of a factory, and despite the action being moved around into various meeting rooms and toilets it never feels more than a play put on screen, despite those flashbacks. It’s hardly the most visual of settings (even the flashbacks look harsh) with both characters living in grubby houses near the sea with a permanently grey sky, and the local pub looks like it’s straight from the 1970s.
Rooney Mara plays the adult Una, who we quickly learn is a deeply troubled woman, possibly alcoholic and prone to brief sexual encounters in club toilets. She still lives with her mother in her childhood home, has a rubbish job and no boyfriend. She tracks down the man with whom she had a three-month affair when she was 13 (changed from the play’s 12 for some reason) and decides to confront him in his factory.
Ray is now called Pete, is married and has a new life, a house and a wife. His face crumples when Una turns up, and they relive their ‘affair’. The brilliant thing in the writing is that Ray is clearly wrong in every way – he was an adult, he knew it was wrong to have sex with a girl, he organised their liaisons, but he is never presented as a mere monster. He continually points out he was “never one of them” – predatory paedophiles, presumably – and insists he was attracted to her and her only, no other girls. His plan for them to run off together on the ferry to Calais is ill-conceived and clearly doomed, but appears to be genuine.
She on the other hand counters that he must have merely wanted her for her body – “there was nothing else”. At 12 she was probably right, but he insists she was special. She also wants to know why he ‘left her’, why he disappeared at the story’s crucial juncture, and keeps repeating this mantra, even in court. She even tells the whole court she still loves Ray.
This argument continues, getting deeper and more detailed, towards what we assume will be a resolution of sorts, but cleverly it never does. There is no resolution, both lives are ruined, in very different ways.
By the end, in which minor characters such as Ray’s wife and factory worker Riz Ahmed are drafted in as plot points, the intensity has deflated, although there is still one trick left up the writer’s sleeve to remind us who really has the power in this pairing.
Overall Verdict: Disappointing film version of a ground-breaking play, which never rids itself of the staginess. Excellent performances by the leads can’t overcome the structural problems with the film’s use of flashbacks.
Reviewer: Mike Martin