It’s been a horrendous week after a horrific year, and you may well be at the point where you can’t take one more ounce of human misery on, even if it’s fictional. I hear ya. So, I realize it’ll sound a bit daff when I suggest seeking out Herself, an Irish drama in which a mother-of-two struggles to build a new life for her girls after leaving her physically abusive husband. However, within what might be a bleak setup, director Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia!) nestles a radiant humanity that blossoms into a heartwarming story of kindness, resilience, and love.
Scripted by Clare Dunne and Malcolm Campbell, Herself begins simply with Sandra (also Dunne) playing with her young daughters. They dance about in princess dresses and giggle and gambol, then in walks their dad Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson), and it’s as if all the air rushes out of the room. He tells them to go outside so he can talk to their mom alone. Threat hangs heavy and sour in the air, in his iciness, in the way he growls for them to go. Then, Sandra smoothly leans down to fasten her kids’ coats, whispering into the elder’s ear, “Black window.” This is a code word, and young Emma knows just what to do. She grabs a battered tin lunchbox and runs as fast as her little legs will carry her, her princess dress flowing, frenzied behind her, to the nearest grown-up, the clerk at a corner store. There, she drops open the lunch box to reveal a clear cry for help detailing Sandra’s name, deadly situation, and address.
Lloyd doesn’t shield her audience from the violence Sandra endures. We witness her being struck down, her scramble to escape, and Gary’s booted foot coming down hard on her outstretched hand. These images may be triggering to survivors of domestic violence. However, Lloyd employs them throughout the film as cutting flashbacks to reflect visually the trauma that follows Sandra, even after she’s supposedly escaped. The first act swiftly establishes the many hoops through which this victim must jump. The government covers her housing at a hotel, but Sandra is scolded by the sneering concierge if she dares to bring her children into the front entrance and its elevator. She works two jobs, splitting her day between cleaning a pub and housekeeping for a homebound doctor, who is recovering from a broken hip. Driving from the hotel to her kids’ school to her two jobs back to the school then back to the hotel is costing her time and money she just doesn’t have. Simply put, Sandra desperate for a home to call her own. Meanwhile, her abusive ex, who still has visitation rights, is crashing comfortably with his parents in a big house, and then giving her hell for running late for drop-offs.
Sandra is running so hard she can barely keep her feet beneath her. Then, the idea of a DIY house hits like lightning. According to a mustachioed Youtuber, she could build her own home for just 35,000 euros. It’s a dream she feels she can achieve with just a little bit of help. She creates a plan, but those whose job is to aid her (social workers, hardware store employees) rebuff her at every opportunity. In Dunne’s bright eyes, you see Sandra’s fragile hope waivering. Then, spontaneous kindness strikes when she least expects it. A warm word becomes a fledgling friendship. An awkward acquaintanceship offers an extraordinary gift. Bit by bit, a remarkable network of ordinary people rise around Sandra, helping her build her dream home brick by metaphorical brick. What makes their kindness so awe-striking is that it comes from near-strangers, who recognize her need and aim to fill it selflessly. In montages, they come together to saw wood, build frames, and feast together, a family forged beyond the bonds of blood. In this, we watch Sandra rebuild herself, finding confidence not only to construct a better future for her daughters but also to stand up for herself against Gary and the patriarchal systems that he would use against her.
I watched Herself the day after the attack on the Capitol, a time when my brain was so wrathful and frayed that focus on anything seemed impossible. Then, Lloyd and company unfurled this story of a mother who was battered but not beaten, who would rise from the ashes to do what’s best for her girls, no matter how hard it gets. In this, we see Sandra rediscover her worth, her strength, and herself. She and her band of builders are not blind to the terrible, unfair, vicious things in this world. They’ve all been knocked down, but choose to get back up and use what strength, creativity, and gifts they have to build a world they’d rather see. Sandra’s house becomes a metaphor, simple yet poignant. Llloyd’s Herself is a melodrama, dark yet radiant, savoring the rainbow that follows a storm.
In short, Herself is a tremendously moving film. Dunne co-wrote a character study she knocks out of the park, delivering a nuanced performance of pain and resilience, supported by an incredible ensemble cast that includes Conleth Hill, Dmitry Vinokurov, Aaron Lockhart, Mabel Chah, and Harriet Walter. In the end, this tender drama feels like an Irish proverb spun in light, warning of cruelty and promising care, all with a crisp wit.
Herself is now on Prime Video.
Header Image Source: Amazon Studios