Directed by Phyllida Lloyd.
Starring Clare Dunne, Harriet Walter, and Conleth Hill.
Young mother Sandra escapes her abusive husband and fights back against a broken housing system. She sets out to build her own home and in the process rebuilds her life and rediscovers herself.
Director Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia!, The Iron Lady) eschews the splashy magnitude of her two previous films for a more grounded, unassuming drama, albeit one shot through with enough cinematic confection to make it a low-key crowd-pleaser.
Sandra (Clare Dunne) is a Dublin mum living in temporary accommodation with her two young daughters after swiftly exiting a violently abusive relationship. With the local council tangling Sandra in a web of red tape and refusing to house her, she decides to take matters into her own hands, using meagre funds and a handful of fast friends to build herself a modest abode on a lot owned by her employer, Peggy (Harriet Walter).
Though Lloyd’s film – which was co-written by Dunne herself – opens with an intense sequence depicting the incident which caused Sandra to flee her partner Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson), the particulars of the abuse aren’t really the film’s central focus.
The ex is certainly part of the story – and the pic deserves credit for not depicting him as a cartoonish monster but a deeply troubled rageaholic – yet Herself is far more concerned with chronicling Sandra’s attempts to rebuild her life in the most literal of means.
Despite its grim opening, the film’s otherwise earnest, feel-good potential speaks for itself, with a small community of acquaintances, led by Sandra’s reluctant foreman Aido (Conleth Hill), coming together to help make her pie-in-the-sky dream come true. Lloyd certainly leans into this, with a number of pop music montages establishing a jaunty pace and tone that wastes little time on the particulars of the peppy group of helpers all coming together.
In our cynical present it’s incredibly easy to sniff at this sort of approach, and while Dunne and Malcolm Campbell’s script isn’t without its contrivances, it suffuses its more syrupy elements with a prevailing, relatable sadness, that a human being ever needs to go to such lengths simply to put a solid roof over their kids’ heads.
Indeed, Herself keenly takes the U.K.’s Kafka-esque bureaucracy to merciless task, particularly the branches of family housing and custody, with the latter powerfully elucidated by a third act detour into courtroom drama territory, amid a brutal custody hearing between Sandra and Gary.
Its clear desire to be about things does sometimes result in dialogue which feels a little too expository for its own good, though; several times, the film practically pauses itself to prosaically spit crucial information to the audience, ahead of an ending that just feels a little too convenient and neat for its own good.
But the storytelling stumbles are relatively easy to accept thanks to the exceptional central performance from Clare Dunne, depicting a dedicated mother who is effervescent in those joyous, silly moments with her kids, but struggles to accept a paradox in her head, that despite the abuse, she misses the life she used to have. This builds to a boiling head of frustration and anger late in the film which confirms the character’s deeply multi-faceted nature.
In the supporting stakes, Conleth Hill is effortlessly charming as Sandra’s no-nonsense yet warm-hearted contractor pal Aido; it’s a very different performance for anyone who knows Hill solely from Game of Thrones, if only because he’s sporting a full head and face of hair. Harriet Walter is also terrific as Sandra’s boss Peggy, serving as a dignified pillar of support throughout. Beyond this, there’s a sharp ensemble of naturalistic performers playing the unconventional band of local heroes contributing to Sandra’s cause.
It’s easy to view Herself as a saccharine, emotionally implausible story given how infrequently so many of us may see the sort of generosity depicted here in real life, but Lloyd and co. make an over-the-odds effort to melt the cynicism away with a compelling overcurrent of humanity. And in 2020, is that really such a crime?
This sentimental yet affecting drama is elevated by sensitive direction and a stonking performance from Clare Dunne in the lead role.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.