Directed by Phyllida Lloyd, and written by Malcolm Campbell and Clare Dunne, the latter who stars in the lead role of Sandra, Herself is a story of progressive self-triumph out of terrible circumstances and while the film doesn’t always fully immerse us into the depths it discusses, it’s nevertheless an ambitious, empowering story of a woman fighting to give her daughters a more positive life, far from the all-too-familiar housing issues and horrific domestic abuse.
Lloyd’s film is setup immediately by showing us that Sandra is clearly a loving Mother, letting her daughters Molly (Molly McCann) and Emma (Ruby Rose O’Hara) put make-up on her face and dress her up, as they see fit – as children do. However, the atmosphere clearly darkens when her husband Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson) arrives home, sends the children out into the garden and appallingly beats her, the reasons of which are linked to her trying to escape from him, which also leads to an intense opening sequence where one of her daughter’s runs off for help, and we have to assume gets it, because the next scene Sandra has moved out into a hotel, thankfully with her children.
Anything that deals with domestic abuse is going to have hard, uncomfortable situations to watch and after the heart-breaking opening, what follows in Herself (beyond the occasional flashback of that moment) is Sandra’s story of how she plans to re-build her life, and the luck that comes her way with it. Writers Campbell and Dunne choose not to give the abuser more focus than he deserves but his presence is always there, in shared custody and how one of her daughters is frightened of him.
As well as Sandra fighting the system for custody of her children, the story also focus a little on the extreme housing crisis in Dublin but it’s more of a side-look, than getting into the real detail of the problem. 2019’s Rosie, directed by Paddy Breathnach and starring Sarah Greene, investigates that with much deeper effectiveness and in a stronger, more grounded sense because Herself takes us somewhere else. For a while Sandra is struggling to find a place to live, but this story places the emphasis on the goodwill of people she meets, which includes an always impressive Harriet Walter, who’s a housebound ex-Doctor called Peggy, who employs Sandra as a cleaner, and in time offers her land so she can self-build and act as a saviour.
The self-build element is an interesting one because it’s something that lingers around the UK and Irish Planning systems but hasn’t really taken on a full life of its own, like it has in other European countries. So here, it feels like a pipedream, but Peggy is not only willing to give Sandra the land for her home, but also back her financially. Sandra then begins to gather a mismatch of people from the fringes of her life, ones who are willing to help, just because they’re decent people. While this is a nice approach, there’s not a huge complexity in the characters and it all seems to slip into place quite effortlessly. While the kindness of strangers does exist, maybe I found it unusual for it all to happen so easily.
Putting the progressive ‘ease’ aside, let alone the ill-fitted song choices that tend to distract and date scenes rather than enhance, there is a meaningful heart at the centre of all this, which is led by Clare Dunne’s Sandra. She’s a woman who must re-learn how strong she really is and how much she can achieve, once she’s free from her abuser. Dunne is unquestionably believable and keeps the film balanced with a profound, honest performance that holds genuine heart. Alongside her, both Ruby Rose O’Hara and Molly McCann are also excellent, bringing openness and a real link to their Mother/Daughter relationship.
In world that contains the likes of I, Daniel Blake and Rosie, it rarely felt as gritty as those works – mainly because some things slip too suitably into place – but in an odd way, and especially after her horrific experiences, you do believe she fully deserves her good luck and, of course, you only want her to win at the end of all this. For me, the strongest part of the film is the latter half-hour or so, when tough decisions are made and heavier discussions are had between the likes of Peggy and Sandra, especially during an important court appearance, which really hits the heartstrings, for all the proper reasons.
Herself has grand ambitions with all the right intentions. As a character, Sandra is given time to show us all – and most importantly herself – how strong she really can be and that, as an overlying message, is worth celebrating every single time.