DIRECTED BY: Phyllida Lloyd
STARRING: Clare Dunne, Harriet Walter, Conleth Hill, Molly McCann, Ruby Rose O’Hara, Cathy Belton, Rebecca O’Mara, Daniel Ryan, Ericka Roe, Ian Lloyd Anderson, Sean Duggan, Aaron Lockhart, Anita Petry and Dmitry Vinokurov
Single mother Sandra has been struggling to get by with her two young daughters. After the housing system refuses to give her a new home, Sandra decides to build her own while the help of a friendly community and a handful of new friends.
Herself is the latest feature film from director Phyllida Lloyd, her first feature since 2011’s The Iron Lady. Set in Dublin, the film focuses on Sandra, a single-mother of two daughter who, after leaving her abusive partner Gary, resides in a state-funded hotel room. With the housing system continuously letting her down, Sandra decides, with a little help of neighbours and friends, to buy a plot of land and build a house of her own, literally rebuilding her life in the process.
The film doesn’t take long to draw the audience in with its effective opening sequence in which we see Sandra spending time with her daughters, Molly and Emma, before her abusive husband Gary assaults her after discovering a bundle of money she’s been hiding from him. As she mouths a code word to one of her daughters, they run to the nearest corner shop with a note to call the guards. As one runs for help, the other witnesses the maliciousness of the altercation and is traumatised by it. The film then proceeds to give audiences a glimpse into the housing crisis in Dublin, and will be all too familiar to those from Dublin, be it native or living there, watching. Residing in an airport hotel courtesy of the Dublin City Council is all well and good, until we see Sandra and her daughters are being forced to enter through the back entrance of the hotel as to not offend hotel guests. Despite being placed on a housing list, we see how she attends properties that are impossible to afford, and shown those that you wouldn’t let your own family member live in. Fed up with the lack of prospects to find a home for her and her daughters, Sandra spends time researching online the prospects of building a house herself and for less than what she would spend in buying one. It seems a reasonable idea in theory, until she hits an inevitable brick wall when pitching it to the council.
Enter Peggy, a retired doctor who Sandra works as a carer for, who understands Sandra’s plight and decides to give her a plot of land to build her own home and with immense hard work and with help from the likes of contractor Aido, his son Francis, as well as friends and volunteers, to build a home for her and the girls, whilst also trying to keep it a secret from the council and Gary. It’s the latter she’s more afraid of finding out about the new home, especially when he believes in his mind it’s only a matter of time before they can get back to ‘normal’ as a family, though that bridge has long been broken. The film also tackles the coldness and lack of empathy that is available to survivors of domestic abuse, particularly towards the second-half of the film when Gary is pursuing sole-custody of the children, leading into an intense legal battle in which Sandra is put through the judgemental ringer of which it could feel melodramatic to some, while others will believe it to be authentic in how some people will make the victim feel like the perpetrator in their questioning, particularly if they ask, “Why didn’t you leave sooner?” (An actuality Clare Dunne discovered when reading transcripts in family court in developing the script with Malcolm Campbell).
Herself balances the fine line of being clichéd with its pop-music building montages and certain conveniences, such as Peggy having a big enough plot of land for Sandra to make her own self-sufficient home on, but Dunne’s and Campbell’s screenplay keep it grounded in reality in how it tackles the matter of domestic abusive, shining a light on a housing system and family law court that is delicately well-handled. Granted I do wish some of the supporting cast, outside of Conleth Hill’s Aido and Harriet Walter’s Peggy, were developed further outside of just being there to help with building Sandra’s new home. Between co-writing the screenplay and starring as the lead, this is absolutely Clare Dunne’s film as she gives a memorable performance as Sandra, who desperately attempts to rebuild her life and tries to pick herself back up even following setback after setback. The young members of the cast, Molly McCann and Ruby Rose O’Hara, also give really good performances as daughters Molly and Emma respectively, and Ian Lloyd Anderson also provides a really good performance as the abusive husband Gary.
Whilst Herself tackles the subject matter of domestic abuse and childhood trauma effectively, with the help of Lloyd’s direction, Dunne’s and Campbell script also shines in showing a sense of overcoming adversity and a togetherness of community that will warm the most cynical of hearts. Clare Dunne is one to watch after her performance here.