Herself was a film I wanted to watch from the first moment I read the description. While I knew there would be intense scenes in the film, that it depicted domestic abuse and the subsequent consequences of escaping the situation, I also knew if done well, it would be powerful and emotional. My hopes were correct, the cast did an incredible job with the material, the performances were authentic and empowering, and the story will resonate with those who have dealt with similar circumstances.
Herself directed by Phyllida Lloyd, written by Malcolm Campbell and Clare Dunne, is the story of a single mother Sandra (Clare Dunne) struggling to get by with her two young daughters. Having left her husband due to abuse, she is unable to find a place to live under the rules of the housing system. With her and her daughters living hand to mouth in a hotel, Sandra decides her only recourse is to build her own home. With the gift of land from the doctor who she’s helped care for, Peggy (Harriet Walter), Sandra begins her work. But she struggles until she meets Aido (Conleth Hill) and a handful of new friends, who help her with her dream. Sandra finds a new purpose, building a community with her friends until her abusive ex-husband sues her for custody of their children. She must find her voice in order to keep her children with her but will it ever be enough?
One of the best elements of the film is the unflinching portrayal of abuse and the system in which women find themselves when leaving an abusive situation. Even in another country, Ireland, the system adds to the problems women face in trying to leave abuse behind them. Even with children with them, finding help is difficult and there are governmental hoops to jump through to even allow for abuse victims to get by day-to-day. Nothing is easy, let alone finding purpose and strength and this film does a fantastic job of presenting all this in a realistic way but still allowing room for laughter and lightness. One of the best methods is when the children show the impact through their actions and emotions. And when they are full of joy, not only does that add to the poignancy in the darker moments, giving weight to the lighter scenes as well.
The other aspect of the story that I like is the details of Sandra building her house. It isn’t easy and in fact, is quite complicated. She has to have land to build on, she has to find a way to obtain the needed money and even with that, she still has to find someone who actually knows the licensing and regulations. Without all that, it’s impossible. I like the steps she has to take along the way but in finding solutions, she finds empowerment for herself. She finds friendship, she finds community. As she gains confidence, she finds strength, both for herself and for her daughters. While there are missteps and struggles along the way, Sandra finds her voice, finds a way to carry on even after the abuse she has suffered. She is not a victim but a survivor.
The story is only part of what makes this movie successful. Without incredible performances, none of this story would work. Clare Dunne is vulnerable, intense, and believable as Sandra. Her emotions carry the film, carry the intensity of the scenes. She is profoundly skilled in the role and her ability to convey such a wide range of emotions allows the character to resonate with audiences. But Clare Dunne is not the only talent in the movie. Molly McCann as Molly and Ruby Rose O’Hara as Emma, her daughters, also are gifted. Each young lady does a wonderful subtle job of portraying emotions through subtle body language and each is incredibly expressive, allowing the audience to understand their emotions through their actions with both their father and their mother. They are lovely and truthful in their portrayals. Harriet Walter as Peggy is witty and wise in her performance and Conleth Hill as Aido is both warm and humorous. This is a film that is difficult to watch at times due to the scenarios but the actors infuse their roles with truthfulness and beauty, emotion, and intensity.
If there are any small issues, it is that the story can be slow at times with small bits told in flashbacks. While that works for the story, it does take longer to get to the meat of the picture. Also, if someone has suffered abuse themselves, some of the scenes are quite graphic. Those with a background like Sandra’s may want to pass on that level of intensity. However, the ending is heartwarming, the characters are honest, and the film is beautiful, especially when you see Sandra growing into herself and loving her daughters. And it is the relationship between her and her daughters that is one of the biggest strengths of the movie.
While this film might not be your cup of tea if you have dealt with abuse, for anyone who appreciates honest emotion, exquisite performances, and a film about a woman empowering herself through friendship and community, this movie is worth the time. Clare Dunne is at her finest and while intense, the highs and lows of the character’s situation will keep viewers on the edge of their seat hoping for everything to work out for her, reveling in the strength Sandra finds in herself. I loved the emotional weight of this movie and the empowering message.
Herself opens in theaters and premieres on Amazon Prime Friday, January 8, 2021.