Sometimes, you can just tell that the leading actor of a film was deeply involved in the creative process, and that is certainly the case for Clare Dunne, who co-wrote and stars in Herself, a new British-Irish hope drama from director Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia!). Dunne has a prolific theater background, but she’s been coming up in more films recently, which makes Herself ideal timing considering how easy it should be for this one to collect a lot of goodwill from critics and audiences alike.
Dunne plays Sandra, a recently single mother and victim of domestic abuse. To protect herself and her children, she collects rent allowance from the government and is living in a hotel until she can make other arrangements. All while her violent ex-husband (Ian Lloyd Anderson) tries to make himself the victim in all this by complaining about their youngest daughter Molly (Molly McCann) not wanting to see him (never mind he’s lucky to not be in jail).
All Sandra really wants to do is provide a better future for her children, so despite having no money and just two working-class jobs, she attempts the colossal effort of building a house in the backyard of an elderly woman she works for (Harriet Walter). The metaphor couldn’t be more front-facing, as Sandra nearly breaks her back trying to do hard labor while her hand is still in a cast from when her husband viciously crushed it.
Contradicting the title, much of Herself plays to the uplifting generosity of community. In a sense, Sandra is doing all of this herself, but not really by herself. She seeks out the aid and comfort of a small group of people who have no incentive to see this house built, but they do it anyway out of sheer compassion. Forget superhero movies, Herself has some of the most supernatural powers we could see in people who decide to work weekends for free simply because a stranger needs help, which includes the confidently good-mannered Conleth Hill (Varys from Game of Thrones in a strikingly different performance than you’re probably used to seeing).
The drama and plotting of Herself are certainly affecting, but they’re not groundbreaking or particularly urgent. The film’s soundtrack is regrettably uneven, with pop music sometimes sneaking into the background of scenes calling for more laid-back or perhaps even folksy tunes considering the tone and presentation. It happens just once or twice too often not to ignore.
But like last year’s wonderful Wild Rose, which has similar emotional story beats, Herself prides itself in its youngest actors. Sandra’s oldest daughter Emma (Ruby Rose O’Hara) is absolutely lovely and precocious, counterbalancing Molly’s quieter vigilance. Just watching these children play with a box for a quick scene is enough to remind you how high these stakes are for both us and our main character, who faces hardship after hardship in her seemingly impossible mission to make a better life for these kids.
Herself is a good example of how far personal storytelling can go when the lead is allowed to put herself fully into the work. Phyllida Lloyd has excelled when it comes to elevating women to tell uncomfortable stories, from a woman grappling with her daughter getting older (through song!) to this far more contentious drama about pulling yourself out of despair with the help of an older and wiser female mentor. We don’t get enough films with this much focus on the beauty of women building each other up, which makes Herself a true home for moviegoers in search of honest, female empowerment.
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