Co-writer and star Clare Dunne shines in this pure story of a mother trying to do what is best for her children. In the most difficult of circumstances in Phyllida Lloyd’s empowering Herself.
Sandra (Clare Dunne) is a mother of two girls (Molly McCann and Ruby Rose O’Hara) who has finally decided to leave her abusive husband, Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson). Placed on a housing list by Dublin council she has to wait for a home for her and her children. Despite a well known housing crisis in the capital. Impatient, she decides that maybe it is best to build her own home.
Opening with a scene that shows the full range of emotions that we as an audience will go through during the length of the film. We are shown Sandra and her daughters enjoying themselves and having a whale of a time. That is until the dark angry clouds of her husband appear. Here the film switches on a dime and what was originally a positive atmosphere turns into a horror.
Horror for Sandra and horror for her daughters made to watch and hide. For one to run in what is a pre-planned routine to ensure safety. It is a truly horrific sequence that doesn’t leave you throughout the film. This is ensured as director Phyllida Lloyd brings it back with flashbacks throughout. We know to buckle in as this is going to be a rollercoaster of a picture.
Herself centres itself in a bleak reality of how families and abuse victims are treated by a system that is barely keeping itself together to support her. The housing crisis in Dublin is as real as it gets and although it is not fully brushed upon here, we have a telling look at a country on the edge in trying to support their citizens. Though, it has to be said that the convenient nature of how Sandra and her girls can find a location and means to build their home is, of course, fantastical in its nature, but it does not take from what has been set up beforehand. Sandra needs some luck and hopes to get by in this world, who are we to forsake that in this tale?
This could have easily have gone down the straight sombre drama route and have been a success due to the strong performances that we have, though we can be grateful that Campbell and Dunne decided to take us another way. A way of hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel.
As mentioned, for a large portion of the film we are witnessing a fight of a single parent trying to provide a home for her children. All the while held back by the bureaucratic nature of a council just trying to stay afloat than rather care for this family. It is quite Ken Loachian in its premise. Yet, as we continue on we gently sway away from this and come to a kinder film as we see the planned house get built.
Importantly for Herself, however, is that it never forgets that opening third of the film. We want nothing but love and joy for Sandra and her girls. With Gary forever lurking, an ominous tone fills the screen throughout. We are waiting for our feet to be pulled from under the brilliantly formed rug, much like in the opening. Sandra and her daughters are happy until Gary appears into the kitchen.
On occasion, certain things fall into place a little too cleanly for our family and friends. Some of the song choices throughout the middle section leave a lot to be desired. This is especially so when this is a film that was sucking in its audience so well for the first act. Thankfully Herself finds its way in the last act as we bring ourselves back around to what made the film so good.
In this final act we focus more on the abuse that Sandra has suffered. We have a judge who is indifferent to the events. The script allows for ignorance to shine through on the circumstances that many women go through daily throughout the world. This lack of support from the judicial and councils only cause for Sandra’s resolves to hold even firmer.
Dunne is fragile and resolute in her performance here and puts everything into the role. This care for the character and the importance of Sandra is not lost on the audience. We are behind her every step of the way, as is the terrific supporting cast. Lloyds direction helps convey the messages from the strong script and allows us to see how strong a director Lloyd truly is.
As much as there is of abuse and the struggles with councils and courts. This is a story of a woman wanting to make a life for her and her children. That is where Herself truly shines as a film.
To view more of our reviews as we cover the London Film Festival 2020, please have a gander below!