There’s real minor-key beauty to this small Irish film which stars its writer, Clare Dunne, in a drama of female grit, maternal determination and the shaky road to self-actualisation after the darkness of domestic violence.
Dunne is Sandra, mother of two young daughters who she is devoted to protecting from the bullying moods and abuses of her husband (Ian Lloyd Anderson), a man who punctuates his temper with manipulative demonstrations of sorrow.
As if leaving the situation wasn’t difficult enough, Sandra also finds that the Irish housing crisis has left her with little choice but to be put on a years-long waiting list for a flat and to take up residence in an airport hotel in the meantime.
Finally, with the aid of a kindly female boss (Harriet Walter), she decides to build her own home. In the people Sandra meets and befriends, director Phyllida Lloyd offers earnest compassion rather than any more fatalistic position, finding community spirit between strangers and a solidarity between women that affirms good faith in our fellow humans.
Loach-esque in its authenticity and its concern for the working class and the marginalised, Herself feels political in the most intimate and personal way. In the challenging and decidedly “masculine” act of building a home from scratch for her family, Sandra’s pluckiness shines through, but the film is clear that this is not an individual achievement: it really does take a village.
It could be said that Lloyd is more of a journeyman director than an auteur; her cinematic career began with the 2008 phenomenon Mamma Mia!, which she followed with Margaret Thatcher biopic The Iron Lady. As such, Herself feels like a real change of pace; a low-budget, and much lower-key film that owes more to British kitchen-sink drama than to Lloyd’s musical background.
The back-to-basics approach suits her. Yet Herself stays formally interesting in its use of jagged flashback structure and a woe-filled but fiery monologue about the treatment of women, wives and mothers from Dunne.
Dunne, who spent five years writing her screenplay and meticulously researching her role, is wonderful. And as a writer, she understands that the domestic-violence drama does not have to be one of endless darkness, but one of redemption, light and rediscovering one’s reserves of self-respect.
Herself is in cinemas from Friday 10 September