Director: Phyllida Lloyd
Talent: Clare Dunne, Harriet Walter, Conleth Hill, Ian Lloyd Anderson, Cathy Belton
Before the news cycle became the Covid cycle, for many, the housing crisis was the most outrageous blight in Irish society. Of course, it is no less relevant today, even if the news deems it so. It’s all to the good then that a powerful new drama is shining a light on this issue.
Herself opens with Sandra (Dunne) and her girls singing along to Sia when her boyfriend, Gary, suddenly arrives home and starts attacking her. The scene is upsetting, but there’s also something inauthentic and stagey about it, any nuance is forfeited for the shock value of harrowing domestic violence
On the basis of this scene, I was concerned that this would be a drab, victim narrative in which the protagonist is put through the ringer at the hands of blank male violence and an indifferent system, all for our edification.
Thankfully, once the film has set up its high stakes, it settles into a pleasingly naturalistic groove. What’s more, this is a more unusual story than you might think on first glance.
Having escaped her abuser, an embattled Sandra tries to get by, working two jobs. Forced to live in a hotel, she can barely make ends meet. Most gruelling of all, she must let her ex see her two girls.
So far so miserable. But Herself takes an unexpectedly utopian turn proving this character has agency outside her suffering. Sandra tries to build a house from scratch, something she googles on a whim. The wealthy elderly woman who she cares for agrees to let her build it on her land. Sandra enlists the help of people who help just out of the goodness of their hearts.
The cast of volunteers do look like they were assembled to meet some diversity quota. But, it’s not far off a fair representation of an ever diversifying Ireland. Occasionally, this stretch of the film is in danger of drifting into hokey territory, with a montage of the progress playing out to the “inspirational” pop song, Titanium. It feels like cliche might be lurking, threatening to subsume things, but no: this a movie more grounded in reality than not.
Besides, you couldn’t accuse Herself of being cloying or sentimental. Any Richard Curtis cutsiness is short-lived. The film becomes engrossing when Sandra’s ex catches wind of her undertaking. Without spoiling anything, Herself isn’t necessarily going the pat route of other films. In Herself darkness is just as powerful as the light. While Sandra’s efforts to provide for her family may just about outweigh her ex’s destructive tendencies, his type of mendacity is sadly something of a match for her. Herself doesn’t pander or try to peddle easy answers for those in desperate straits.
Gary uses loopholes in the justice system to try to gain custody of Sandra’s kids. By not sugarcoating how ruinous a relationship like this can be, the film has a rawness that makes it vital. The moments of triumph have more impact because they are hard won. The moments of levity are more touching because they are tentative, only fleetingly embraced before the next wearing indignity.
But it’s the central performance that really elevates this. Dunne’s wounded stoicism and enterprising spirit ensures emotional investment.
Herself convinces thanks to a script that, notwithstanding some wobbles, avoids cliche when it counts, and a central performance so effective you might find yourself hoping that Sandra’s okay long after the credits. This is not irrational. You may know a Sandra.
Words: Rory Kiberd