In a riveting early scene from Phyllida Lloyd’s empathetic, low-key drama Herself, a little girl races into a convenience store with her toybox. Inside that box is a note, a simple request to call for help. That note, written by Sandra (Clara Dunne, also co-writer) in the case her husband’s violent abuses have reached deadly levels, is the only reason she survives to see the next day. From that point on, each day is about making sure her children never have to endure seeing something like that again, and to assure a brighter future for them, no matter the cost.
Herself marks Lloyd’s first movie since she directed The Iron Lady nine years ago, and before that the jukebox musical Mamma Mia! While this film is considerably smaller in scale than those prior efforts, Sandra’s seemingly-tiny Dublin existence and journey from abused wife to independent woman encompasses giant issues such as domestic violence, the housing crisis, and lack of public support for those in need. But this is ultimately about one mother’s stubborn determination to build a better life, despite the external factors that make dreaming big seem like an impossibility.
Dublin’s economic and housing hardships are well-known and the stuff of many an Irish drama, and they are treated with the seriousness they deserve here. There is a sense that everyone is in dire straits, and one of the many insightful observations in Herself is that this unease creates a vicious cycle where people can’t help one another, which only creates more hardship. Sandra, stricken with PTSD and homeless after leaving her husband Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson), shacks up in a tiny hotel room with her young daughters Emma (Ruby Rose O’Hara) and Molly (Molly McCann), where they are treated like second-class citizens. Rather than wait forever for public housing that isn’t likely to come, Sandra decides to build a home of her own.
It’s a crazy notion. You don’t just pick up some tools and a bag of cement and build a house. Not without a ton of help, anyway. While Herself shows that economic turmoil can be a hindrance to a sense of community, there’s a sense of hope in the family Sandra is able to build from the various people who put their own problems aside to aid her. There’s her supportive and plain-speaking boss Peggy (theatre actress Harriet Walter), the gruff contractor Aido (Game of Thrones’ resident gossiper Conleth Hill, here with actual hair on his head), and others who help give this film the crowd-pleasing punch it needs to overcome potential depressing material.
Along the way, Sandra faces her share of government red tape, seemingly designed to crush working class folks from aspiring too high. There’s also the court system she must navigate to maintain custody of her girls, and of course, the constant gaslighting from her husband who keeps trying to find ways back into her life. Lloyd, and the screenplay penned by Dunne and co-writer Malcolm Campbell, walk a fine line between Sandra’s troubles and the many reasons to celebrate that pop up along the way. That the film manages to skirt the Hollywood shocks and swerves we’ve come to expect from domestic dramas is one of its great accomplishments. The courtroom scenes, in particular, don’t go as they tend to in American films, and certain characters that could be cliches have a bit more nuance. That includes Sandra, whose drive to see this plan through causes her to do some things which don’t reflect well and cause her trouble down the road. At times the script could be more hard-hitting in its social commentary, as Sandra is bailed out from a dismissive public system by a lot of miraculous generosity. To be fair, to have focused too much on systemic failures would’ve changed the movie’s tone drastically, but I couldn’t help but feel a bit short-changed in that department.
Dunne is a new face to me, although she apparently had a small role in Spider-Man: Far from Home. Mainly she works in theatre, and was part of Lloyd’s all-female Shakespeare production at The Donmar Warehouse. She captures Sandra’s determination, but also the constant disquiet she feels, as if always expecting the other shoe to drop. This is especially true during the happiest times, when Sandra just isn’t settled. There does come a gut punch moment, just when things are looking their best, but even then Herself does not take the easy way out. In a story such as this, happy endings are also a dream. A house won’t fix everything, it’s people coming together and trusting each other that truly builds a home.