PG Score: 7.5/10
Herself is available on Amazon Prime
After a nine-year hiatus, Director Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia!) returns to cinema with a passionate drama filled with disturbingly truthful social commentary on domestic trauma and glaring bureaucratic shortcomings. Anchored by a breakout performance from Clare Dunne, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Malcolm Campbell, Herself takes a raw path in delivering its forceful message.
The premise focuses on Sandra (Dunne), a mother who breaks free from an abusive relationship only to contend with a grossly ineffective housing system. As she begins to reconstruct her identity and her life, she decides to build her own home.
The film firmly establishes the severity of the stakes the main character faces with a brutal opening sequence. Following the harrowing introduction to her plight, the viewer is thrust into the unfair consequences she must deal with after leaving her volatile husband, Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson). Herself is intimate in its meticulous depiction of Sandra’s routine and takes no shortcuts in driving home the harshness of her situation. However, Lloyd does not wallow in the anguish and shifts gears to take on a wholesome tone in the restorative journey.
Arguably the most beautiful moments center on Sandra’s interactions with her daughters Molly (Molly McCann) and Emma (Ruby Rose O’Hara). While these personal exchanges vary in seriousness, many of them highlight a mother’s primal need to protect her children. Sandra puts her fears and frustrations aside so that she can ensure the safety of what matters most. Thanks to superb acting from Dunne, McCann, and O’Hara these scenes are particularly impactful because they feel so real.
Herself shines a compromising light on the failures of the institutions in place that are intended to aid individuals in Sandra’s position. In addition to the struggles she encounters in seeking residential assistance, she is subjected to the flaws within the courts as well. Although the movie takes place in Ireland, the same deficiencies are applicable to the United States and many other regions of the world. Besides a few missteps, Lloyd exposes these issues with powerful precision and avoids venturing into the realm of heavy-handedness. Her careful, yet revealing direction is boosted by the work of the lead actress.
Clare Dunne exhibits the full scope of her range in her portrayal of Sandra. With several smaller parts on her resume, this serves as her first credit in a lead role, and she certainly makes a splash. She conveys the protagonist’s utter despair during her low points and her pure elation on the other end of the spectrum. The film is partially a character study and Dunne embodies the on-screen transformation with poise and believability. The fact she co-wrote the script enables a closer connection with the character and speaks to her versatility.
Herself makes excellent use of a talented supporting cast, beginning with McCann and O’Hara, who are both magnificent as Sandra’s daughters. The young actresses possess undeniable screen presence and display strong chemistry with each other as well as Dunne. The odious husband, Gary, is played by Ian Lloyd Anderson, who effectively communicates every bit of the conniving and dangerous antagonist. Conleth Hill (best known for his work as Lord Varys on Game of Thrones) delivers a heartwarming performance as Aido, a builder who heads up the operation to assist Sandra in her life-changing project. Harriet Walter plays Peggy, her tough, yet compassionate employer and captures the fascinating character remarkably well.
Despite maintaining excellent form for the better part of the lean 97-minute runtime, the movie falters in the final act. Due to the excess of activity that occurs, the affective messaging that is so palpable in the first two acts gets lost in the shuffle. It does regain some of that magic right before the credits roll, but the overall momentum is diminished because of the hurried pacing that leads to an incomplete ending. While the ambiguity works to an extent and the direction the story is heading is clear enough, a more definitive conclusion would have been more fitting.
A Powerful Spotlight Piece
While she is unable to quite bring it all the way home, director Phyllida Lloyd combines a stunning performance from Clare Dunne and a riveting condemnation of a broken system to qualify Herself as essential viewing.