With a firm content warning in place for scenes of domestic abuse, the opening to Herself is admittedly bleak, and a stark contrast to the film that most people would know director Phyllida Lloyd for, 2008’s ultimate feel-good cheese-fest, Mamma-Mia!
It opens with Sandra (Dunne) and her two daughters, Emma (Ruby Rose O’Hara) and Molly (Molly McCann). What looks like a happy family scene, is soon interrupted by the arrival of their father, Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson) who proceeds to physically assault Sandra. The violence erupts in fragments, but it is undoubtedly difficult to watch. Whilst the brutality, both seen and implied is in itself shocking, perhaps even more disquieting is the whispered phrase Sandra manages to get to her eldest daughter before the beating begins. The true horror is that not only has this evidently happened many times before, but also that a mother has had to prepare her young child for this kind of situation, where the violence escalates to a point where there is an immediate threat to her safety.
There’s shades of Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake (2016) as we see Sandra facing housing issues, managing multiple jobs, and all whilst constantly trying to battle a system which seems to be in place to make things more difficult. With the help of her kind employer Peggy (Harriet Walter) however, Sandra is given the land and the money she needs to build her own house. It is a concept which seems a little ridiculous in the beginning, but it is handled with such warmth and sincerity that you can’t help but be charmed by. As the community rallies around Sandra to help her build a place of safety for her and the girls, we also see the “rebuilding” of her spirit as she tries to piece her life back together.
Anchored by a stunning performance from Clare Dunne, this is a film which constantly surprises. Every time it feels like it may veer into cliche, it somehow manages to pull the rug out from you. Whether it is punctuating the bleak social-realism with sudden moments of joy and relief, or conversely bringing the walls crashing down again just as you think things may be wrapping up too nicely, Herself never fully goes in the direction that you think it will and this makes it infinitely watchable.
Phyllida Lloyd has made a name for herself in telling women’s stories, and it is her care in telling this particular story, as well as the gut-punching script from star Clare Dunne and Malcolm Campbell, that really shines here. Throughout, we see the incredible strength and resilience of women and communities, and how those who help someone in need will also be helped themselves in some way.
Whilst it may sound like this film is saccharine, there is also stark contrast in its powerfully realistic depiction of domestic violence. We see and feel the massive injustices faced by victims of abuse. Sandra regularly has to face her abuser, who still has access to his daughters. The horror of what happened to Sandra at the hands of her husband appears throughout the film in traumatic flashbacks, piecing together the full extent of the ordeal, and whilst we as the audience do not experience the prolonged horror or trauma, Sandra has to face it and be civil with it constantly.
There are moments of the film that will have you screaming at the screen with how unfair the system is, and towards the end it poses the powerful challenge: “you asked the woman why she wouldn’t leave, but you don’t ask the man why he didn’t stop.” The youngest child refuses to see her dad because she is scared, and yet the system doesn’t show compassion towards this delicate situation, but instead asks why the mother is refusing to give the child over to their father.
Clare Dunne’s performance in this film is devastating and heartbreaking, and she conveys the fears and unwavering determination in such a beautiful and honest way. Harriet Walter, a true national treasure, is equally brilliant as Peggy, and the development of her relationship with Sandra from employer-employee, to almost family, is endearing and believable throughout.
Herself is never exactly the film you think it is going to be, and yet it conveys its message with such integrity, warmth and likeability. With the power to uplift and devastate in a relatively short space of time, Herself is a very special film indeed.