Opens: June 22
Genre: Drama
Duration: 94 minutes

Fifteen years after an adult man initiates an illegal three-month sexual relationship with an underage teenage girl, the victim finally confronts the man responsible in this gripping film set in suburban England, adapted by Scottish dramatist David Harrower from his own acclaimed stage play, Blackbird.

What might have been a simple revenge melodrama becomes a far more subtle and a far more nuanced – and therefore more powerful and haunting – affair in the hands of Harrower and his director, Benedict Andrews, the internationally successful Australian theatre director here making an excitingly accomplished cinema debut.

While the play – which I haven’t seen – was confined to the meeting between the two adults, the film flickers back and forth between the present and the past, the former unfolding during a single day. Rooney Mara’s Una turns up to the light industrial warehouse where Ben Mendelsohn’s Ray now works. After serving a four-year sentence as a result of his abuse, Ray has moved to a different area, changed his name to Pete and married.

Interspersed throughout the film are flashbacks showing Una as a 13-year-old (terrific newcomer Ruby Stokes), flattered by the attention from this older neighbour, tragically falling in love and briefly eloping with him. Rather than telling this back-story in predictably linear fashion, the filmmakers let the details seep out in fragments that only gradually start to add up to the big picture.

Mara, always a very contained actor, emphasises the edgily unpredictable in Una. The film is clearly on her side and yet when Ray calls her unhinged, you can also see what he means (there’s a clear sense nonetheless that if she is unbalanced, the blame should go to him).

Ray, meanwhile, repeatedly shores up his own self-image by denying that he’s a paedophile, just a man who made a single mistake for which he has now paid. Here Mendelsohn makes great use of his capacity, exercised in recent US productions including Netflix melodrama Bloodline, to portray morally flawed men who somehow avoid being irredeemable – not an
easy tightrope to walk.

Having accrued many admirers for his theatre work, Andrews shows he also has a gift for the big screen. This always feels more like cinema than a play, with Andrews using strikingly formal compositions, surrounding the lead characters with space and placing them behind sheet glass and in sterile corridors and bathrooms, subliminally emphasising their emotionally naked states without ever losing the sense that this is set in the real world.

Lynden Barber also reviews The Promise and Monsieur Chocolat in the July 2017 issue of Limelight.