Directed by Phyllida Lloyd.
Starring Clare Dunne, Molly McCann, Ruby Rose O’Hara, Ian Lloyd Anderson, Cathy Belton, Art Kearns, Sarah J. Kinlen, Ericka Roe, Anita Petry, Lorcan Cranitch, Tina Kellegher, Donking Rongavilla, Sean Duggan, and Conleth Hill.
This is the story of young mother Sandra who 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 re-discovers herself.
There is a recent trend involving domestic abuse films that are more fixated on the aftermath of the escape rather than the escape itself. Directed by Phyllida Lloyd, Herself opens with arguably the most disturbing piece of violence seen all year in a movie (it’s not graphic or bloody, but more so for the unflinching depiction of domestic assault), as Sandra (Clare Dunne, who is also credited with the story and writing the screenplay alongside Malcolm Campbell) is attacked by her narcissistic and sociopathic boyfriend Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson). The terror has been going on for so long that Sandra is able to direct one of her two daughters to a note that’s a desperate cry for the police, which they promptly run off with and show to a shop owner.
Of course, there is never a reason for any man to resort to such drastic violence against a woman, but if you are wondering what sparked what appears to be routine outbursts of physical anger, it’s because Gary had discovered Sandra’s safe box savings she was accumulating in order to escape these dangerous living conditions. Infuriatingly, when things eventually go to court, we hear the same insulting questions lobbed at the victim such as “why didn’t you try to escape before” which shouldn’t even be on the table given all the resources available to study the ways such toxic and mentally unstable men can cut off a woman from any and all of her lifelines. On a weekend (at the time of this writing) where Shia LaBeouf has had a lawsuit filed against him for some of the same abhorrent behavior (and a whole lot worse, in his case), one only needs to read the passage from FKA Twigs that talks about such suffocation as a result of being sequestered.
As previously mentioned, Herself follows in the footsteps of traumatized character studies such as The Invisible Man (yes, it’s also an action-horror flick but you are delusional if you can’t see that Elisabeth Moss and her portrayal of the terrorized heroine are what really takes it to greatness) that use the initial escape as a launching point for a story investigating broken areas of starting anew. Legally, Gary is still allowed weekends with the children (no one in their right mind would want their children with him even if he has moved back in with his parents following the incident, yet Sandra must comply), the housing options are embarrassing, her life is made substantially harder by working multiple low-end jobs, and she now has bouts of PTSD from the attack. Much of this comes to a head in a fantastic courtroom sequence that directly confronts all of it, delivered with passion by Clare Dunne.
Sandra also devises a plan to build her own house, yet due to some extremely silly rules is forced to check off a box on a form that says she has no alternative housing options. Right or wrong, it pales in comparison to anything Gary is up to, who regularly takes pages out of the narcissist playbook during his brief visits with Sandra as she drops off the children, pleading that he is a changed man and seeking help. It’s all acted with such calculated insincerity that you can’t help but want to pat Sandra on the back and give her a hug every time she resists his bullshit.
Nevertheless, the middle stretch of Herself utilizes a series of contrivances that allow Sandra all of the necessities to build her own home, from land to her own team of construction workers. There’s a comment in the film about the selfishness of Irish people, so it’s clear that this movie is trying to show citizens that are the exception to the rule and perhaps encourage the country to do better and help each other out. Admittedly, there is also a warm friendship at the center of it as one of Sandra’s jobs consists of caretaking for a wealthy injured woman that her now-deceased mother used to be friends with. Naturally, they prove to be a source of inspiration for one another.
There’s just a disconnect in this section from the seriousness of the rest of the situation at hand, opting for mainstream music montages of characters building and folks being good to one another. It’s not that any of this feels fake, just that it’s from a different movie telling its own message. The tonal shift from psychological trauma to feel good new livelihoods simply isn’t always transitioned the best. With that said, Herself has strong performances and thankfully builds its way to a scathing takedown of the subsequent legal proceedings following domestic abuse.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com