Updated: Jul 13, 2021
A woman is playing with her two young daughters. They put makeup on mommy’s face, then the three of them dance, enjoying the pleasure of each other’s company. The music is turned off. Daddy’s home. Mommy takes one look at him before whispering a code phrase to her oldest daughter as the kids are sent outside. Then, the oldest daughter sprints into town for help while her mommy is savagely beaten.
These are the opening moments of Herself (streaming on Amazon Prime), a Irish drama about a woman struggling against her own trauma, and difficult odds, to provide a decent life for her children. That efficiently executed, powerful, not to mention very harrowing, start sets up a sad, but ultimately hopeful, and rewarding, movie. The plot is fairly thin, as are most of the supporting characters, and its trajectory is unsurprising. Despite those issues, it is so good at establishing this woman, her world and what she is fighting for, that I didn’t care. Its ability to create a sympathetic protagonist and make me want to see her succeed makes it good. It is pushed up another notch by a strong lead performance and sensitive writing.
After leaving her husband, Sandra and her girls move into a crappy hotel room. The government is not useful in assisting her in finding more permanent accommodations so, with little money and no better prospects, Sandra decides to build a house by herself.
Herself stars Clare Dunne (who also cowrote), an actress previously unknown to me. That works in favor of a role like this because it means she isn’t bringing any baggage with her. Basically, I’m not thinking about the actress when I see her struggle with an unhelpful system or ask strangers for aid; I’m only thinking about Sandra. At no point did she ever shatter that illusion for me. The look of joy on her face when she is with her children, the fear in her eyes when she is around her ex-husband and the determination as she sets out to build a house; I bought into all of it and, as a result, I eagerly traveled with her on a journey toward hope.
There is a down-to-Earth realism in Dunne’s performance that isn’t always present in the supporting characters. Her abusive husband is selfish and self-pitying and the woman whose house she cleans is relentlessly kind and generous. The professional who agrees to help her build the house for free has a bit more to him, but not much. The actors in each role are good (very good in the case of Conleth Hill as Aido, the builder), yet the whole production would fall apart if Sandra wasn’t believable.
Director Phyllida Lloyd keeps her camera still, staying mostly in medium or close-up on her star. That lets the focus remain on how she responds to her circumstances and then begins to take control of them. There is certainly some social commentary in the screenplay (by Dunne and Malcolm Campbell), shown by the way Sandra is treated by the government and the legal system. It isn’t the most detailed or insightful commentary. However, Sandra’s story is complex enough to overcome the movie’s weaker aspects.
The screenplay understands not just how hard it is for her to deal with the housing situation, the demands of her awful ex, build a new house and raise two little girls; it also understands her internal battle. She loved this man and feels guilt and a lot of shame at ending up where she is. All of those things are on display in Herself. Though most of what is going on outside of her central story is only okay, when it concentrates on Sandra willing herself to do what must be done for her family, it is really good. And Clare Dunne is great.
3¾ out of 5
Clare Dunne as Sandra
Ruby Rose O’Hara as Emma
Molly McCann as Molly
Harriet Walter as Peggy
Conleth Hill as Aido
Ian Lloyd Anderson as Gary
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd
Written by Malcolm Campbell and Clare Dunne