Irish actress and screenwriter Clare Dunne places herself very much front and center in Herself, where she plays Sandra, a woman fleeing an abusive relationship. In a harrowing opening scene, we see her soon-to-be-ex start a beating, director Phyllida Lloyd (The Iron Lady) fortunately cutting to black before the worst of it happens (though the film returns to this moment in flashbacks, again and again, revealing more details each time). We may be spared, but her two girls are not, the one running to a local shop in a pre-planned routine, begging the folks there to call the police, and the other watching the entire ordeal from a child’s playhouse in the yard. Though Sandra and her daughters’ subsequent journey to freedom and peace will be fraught, it always engages, thanks to sharp mise-en-scène from Lloyd and moving performances from all involved. Much more than a tale of victimhood, the movie delivers a rousing feminist narrative of discovered agency and pride of self.
Much like Ken Loach’s recent Sorry We Missed You, Herself also offers a deep dive into the social inequities that make life so much harder for some than for others. Sandra and children are placed, by the state, into new housing, but it’s a room in an airport hotel that forces them to use a back entrance (so as not to rub elbows with paying customers), far away from work and school. Sandra holds down two jobs, constantly rushed and harried, on top of which she must still share custody with her abuser, who himself now lives with his parents. It’s a far from ideal situation, and does not bode well for the future, especially once the kids’ father begins to imagine that reconciliation is possible. Why isn’t he in jail, one might ask? To which the answer is simply that laws are not always set up to support women. Assault and battery is apparently in the eye of the beholder.
From this less-than-ideal setup comes inspiration, however, after a chance glimpse of an internet video about DIY housebuilding. Soon, Sandra is obsessed, convinced that if she can just gather the materials, land and crew she needs to construct her own place, she will truly be free. Luckily, she has an ally in one of her two employers, Peggy (Harriet Walter, The Sense of an Ending), an injured doctor for whom she cleans. Prickly though she might be (and who could blame her?), Sandra also makes friends with a local handyman, Aido (Conleth Hill, The Isle) who agrees, however reluctantly, to lend a hand. Slowly, her dream begins to take shape. The only problem is that she has to keep it secret, both from her ex and the social-service agencies, as any change in domicile might affect her status as parent and welfare recipient. The stakes are high, with everything on the line.
And yet the film always feels comfortably lived in, thanks to Dunne’s dynamic turn in the lead, the charming young thespians (Molly McCann and Ruby Rose O’Hara) who play her daughters, and everyone else (even Ian Lloyd Anderson as her violent former partner). If the script sometimes underscores its dramatic points a little too heavily, this does not detract from the overall power of its arc. By the end, we are right there, with Sandra, herself, having come through the wringer and the stronger for it.
– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)