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By: Hannah Strong
Phyllida Lloyd’s latest feature feels smaller than her previous two big budget productions, Mamma Mia! and The Iron Lady, both of which starred Meryl Streep alongside an ensemble of familiar faces. In Herself, largely unknown performers take centre stage, led by Lloyd’s fearless co-writer Clare Dunne as the central character, Sandra. It might also just be the filmmaker’s finest work to date – an intimate portrayal of one woman’s struggle to improve life for herself and her young children after fleeing an abusive relationship.
Forced into temporary accommodation at an airport hotel – where the family are forbidden from using the guest entrance for fear their appearance might startle the paying guests – Sandra works two jobs to support her resilient daughters Emma and Molly (played by scene stealers Ruby Rose O’Hara and Molly McCann), all the while undermined by her estranged husband Gary, who attempts to gaslight her into returning to him. Despairing of her situation and desperate to keep her family safe, Sandra embarks on an unconventional journey to build her own “tiny home” from scratch, aided by her generous employer Peggy (Harriet Walter) and a group of supportive friends and well-wishers.
There are shades of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh’s grim social realism here, but not a trace of melodrama. Dunne approaches Sandra’s story from a matter-of-fact point of view, showing how for many victims of abuse reflection is a luxury they simply can not afford, not to mention how the systems put in place to protect such people often fail them. In a heartbreaking example of the cruelty of the system, Sandra is forced to drop her daughters off at her ex-husband’s home every weekend due to their custody agreement, regardless of how traumatic this is for her, or the children who witnessed their father’s abusive behaviour.
The absurdity of Sandra’s situation might be hard to fathom, but it’s daily life for millions of women across the world who are forced to share close quarters with their abusers. Lloyd and Dunne succeed in giving a voice to the voiceless while also offering a nuanced, dignified portrait of a woman rediscovering herself after years of living in fear. Neither Sandra or her children are defined merely by their circumstances or experiences, and the film goes to lengths to demonstrate that there is also love and joy in their lives as well as pain. Lloyd’s direction ensures we see everything throw Sandra’s eyes, and flashbacks to Gary’s abusive episodes call to mind the fractured experience of PTSD.
So many films are branded ‘urgent’ nowadays, but in the case of Herself the term really does feel apt. Reform of women’s rights to ensure better protection from violence is essential; Lloyd’s unfailingly compassionate film highlights this while managing to remain full of warmth. For all the darkness and pain Sandra and her daughters live through, there’s light too, and the found family that is created out of traumatic circumstances give them something they haven’t experienced in a long time: hope.
Sounds like a change of pace for Lloyd.
Devastating but never manipulative with its hard-hitting plot.
A story about human kindness and cruelty, powered by Dunne’s script and performance.
Ruby Rose O’Hara
Originally posted on Little White Lies