Following a single mother trying to build a new life after escaping an abusive marriage, this sensitive and compelling drama pairs a clear-eyed perspective with a powerful lead performance.
Happiness, then horror. That's what Herself's earliest moments serve up. When the gripping and poignant Irish drama opens, it's with the sight of Sandra (Claire Dunne, Spider-Man: Far From Home) being given a makeover by her two daughters Molly (Molly McCann, Vivarium) and Emma (debutant Ruby Rose O'Hara). The younger pair tenderly apply lip gloss, blush and shimmering eye shadow as they talk about their mother's under-eye birthmark, then the trio dance blissfully in the kitchen to Sia's 'Chandelier'. But Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson, Vikings) arrives home mid-song, and he's angry. He's found a roll of cash hidden in the family's car, and he's soon unleashing his furious thoughts and unforgiving fists in response. The film cuts between the violence that follows and Emma's rushed run to a local shop to seek help for her mother — but even just seen in glimpses, the ordeal that Sandra is put through by her savage spouse is both harrowing and heartbreaking.
Survivalist films typically pit humans against the elements, nature or space, frequently testing a character's endurance when they're cast adrift in the ocean (as in Kon-Tiki and All Is Lost), endeavouring to prevail in unwelcoming expanses (Into the Wild, Arctic), coming face to face with animal predators (The Grey, Crawl) or ascending to the heavens and all that it entails (Gravity, The Martian). Herself doesn't tick a single one of these boxes, but it still fits the genre. In fact, it might be one of the most essential survivalist movies yet. What else is a feature about a woman trying to escape an abusive marriage, care for her two children alone and build a safe future that's all her own, if not a story of survival? What else is Sandra doing but simply attempting to persist and persevere when she leaves Gary, then weathers the consequences — because neither life in general, nor social services and government bureaucracy specifically, are particularly hospitable to women in her situation? Herself needn't wonder what it's like to try to hold on while you're cut off from the world, or to navigate that other survivalist film staple, the post-apocalyptic realm, because it dives straight into a torturous life-or-death situation that happens every day around the globe.
It's clear from the outset that Sandra and Gary's marriage hasn't been content for some time, and that she's long had the bruises to prove it. Her badly fractured hand, a marker of this latest outburst, becomes the latest physical symbol of their domestic horror, as well as the catalyst that gets Sandra to finally farewell their relationship. Forging a path forward proves complicated at every turn, however. The authorities can only house the trio in a hotel far away from the girls' school, with the wait for permanent housing expected to take years. Juggling two jobs to barely scrape by becomes even trickier and, by court order, Gary still gets weekend visits with the kids. Then, thanks to a spark of unexpected inspiration from a bedtime story, Sandra decides to try to build her own house — a €35,000 self-build that only becomes possible due to an overwhelmingly thoughtful gift from one of her bosses, Peggy (Harriet Walter, Killing Eve). Also pivotal: the kindness of a construction industry veteran Aido (Conleth Hill, near-unrecognisable from his time as Game of Thrones' Varys), who knows Gary's reputation; and all the help she can muster from friends and colleagues, plus whoever they can round up to assist as well.
An actor with an extensive theatre history, Dunne turns in a phenomenally rich and vulnerable performance — one that would silence an entire room if she was on a stage, rather than on the screen. In her hands, Sandra is determined, but she also knows all too well what it's like to feel defeated. She's no longer willing to stay with her husband for their children's sake, and she can understandably barely stand to be in the same place as him, but she also mourns for what their relationship once was. She knows what's against her at every turn, she has the pluck to keep soldiering on again and again, but she's no saint or martyr. She struggles, she wavers between not knowing how to accept help and almost demanding it, and she grapples with finding her voice and her sense of agency — especially when put on the spot in court — after being robbed of both for so long. With What Richard Did's Malcolm Campbell, Dunne co-wrote Herself's script, too, and it's clear that she breathes every speck of pain, despair, diligence and fortitude that Sandra so visibly cycles through.
As a writer, Dunne doesn't make easy choices. Her narrative doesn't follow a straightforward path, either. Herself's script highlights the devastating complexities that surround Sandra constantly, but it avoids plotting the obvious course — because more hopeful and more grim moments are always in everyone's futures, even when it seems that worse surely can't come. Stress, resilience, affectionate gestures and uncaring powers-that-be are all a part of this story. So is interrogating a system that's quick to push back at victims in the name of family, and showing the impact upon children who grow up in a household blighted by domestic violence. Herself fleshes out this reality, but always hurtles onwards, because that's all that Sandra can do. Worlds away from the two other features on her resume — Mamma Mia! and The Iron Lady — director Phyllida Lloyd helms an intense, compassionate but still clear-eyed drama. It's as bleak as French standout Custody, which also plunges into an abusive marriage and the impact upon both partners and children. It's also as brutal in its unflinching depiction of navigating bureaucracy as fellow Irish film Rosie, which also tells of a mother trying to find housing for her kids. And yet, without any cloying sentiment, with purposeful but never heavy-handed symbolism, and as shot with tender naturalism and an abundant wellspring of empathy, there's hope and tenacity coursing through this sensitive and compelling drama as well.
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