THE STORY – 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.
THE CAST – Clare Dunne, Harriet Walter & Conleth Hill
THE TEAM – Phyllida Lloyd (Director), Malcolm Campbell & Clare Dunne (Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 97 Minutes
By Bianca Garner
We open “Herself” with a happy scene, Sandra (Clare Dunne), a young mother from Dublin is having a make-over session with her young daughters. Then the three of them dance in their kitchen, singing along to Sia’s Chandelier without a single care in the world. Together they are a happy unit, full of love for each other. Then he returns. Ian Lloyd Anderson’s Gary is a force not to be reckoned with. He is the worst type of villain because he is so undeniably real. What proceeds is a gut-wrenching, heartbreaking, and powerful scene that shakes you to your very core. It’s a brutal display of domestic violence that results in Sandra’s hand being broken. Fearing for her mother’s life, Emma (Ruby Rose O’Hara) races to the local store with a metal lunchbox, revealing inside a secret message, a plea to call the police.
Time passes, and we see that now Sandra and her girls are living in a hotel after finally leaving Gary. They now exist in a state of limbo, waiting on the housing list for a house that may never materialize. The properties they visit are either overpriced studio flats or have massive queues of eager viewers who are all in the same boat. Sandra can’t seem to catch a break. If she’s not ferrying her girls to school, she’s working at one of her two jobs. One of her jobs is at a bar where her unsympathetic boss treats her like dirt. The other job is as a cleaner to Peggy (Harriet Walter), a tough ex-doctor with a soft side that slowly becomes revealed to us.
Fed up with waiting, Sandra decides to take matters into her own hands. She works out that she can build her own home for €35,000. All she needs is the land to build it on. That’s where Peggy comes in, gifting her both the land at the bottom of her garden and the money needed for materials. The problem is that Sandra hasn’t the first idea of how to build a house, luckily she encounters Conleth Hill’s builder, who eventually caves in and decides to help out.
At first glance “Herself” may seem like something we’ve seen a dozen times before. At times, it is formulaic and a little predictable. The overuse of montages with uplifting music may cause some to eye-roll, but the sight of people coming together to help someone desperately in need is something that instantly feels your heart with warmth. This is Dunne’s first screenwriting credit (she co-wrote the script with Malcolm Campbell), but it feels like she’s already a veteran. The story may seem familiar, but the level of authenticity to the character of Sandra and her struggle feels all too real. Throughout the film, we witness flashbacks to Sandra’s attack, which acts as a constant reminder that her PTSD is almost inescapable. Through Dunne’s stunning performance and her script, she creates a very human character who is flawed but is trying to do her best for her daughters. Dunne manages to convey so much emotion just by her facial expressions, this is a subtle, almost graceful performance. Watching Dunne’s performance, you can’t help but be reminded of Jessie Buckley’s Rose in “Wild Rose” or Brie Larson’s Ma in “Room.” There’s nothing stronger or more inspiration than a mother fighting for a better life for her children.
The supporting cast also delivers strong performances. Anderson presents us with a ticking time bomb of a man. We wait in a state of anxiety (just like Sandra does) for the next explosive outburst. We tense up every time he touches Sandra or the girls. Walter acts as a surrogate mother figure, offering up some much-needed words of confidence. It is perhaps the breakout performances by the film’s two young stars, O’Hara and Molly McCann as youngest daughter Molly, which leaves a real lasting impression. Both young actresses manage to capture the vulnerability and confusion of two young girls who have lost not only their home but their father.
“Herself” is a beautiful tale of charity, empowerment, and empathy which pulls on our heartstrings. It’s hard not to be moved to tears by its powerful ending. At times, “Herself” can be slightly traumatic to watch with its portrayal of domestic violence, but it doesn’t shy away from the fact that this is a harsh reality for many women across the globe. Ultimately, this is a triumphant story of overcoming the odds and rebuilding your life after suffering from trauma and abuse. And, in all honesty, this is the type of film we need right now. Luckily, Amazon Studios has acquired U.S. distribution rights to the film which hopefully means this film has a chance to be seen by a wider audience because it deserves to be seen.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – A stunning performance by Clare Dunne, with a great supporting cast. This is an inspiring and hopeful tale about rebuilding a life.
THE OSCARS – None