Written by Clare Dunne
Directed by Phillipa Lloyd
From the insipid musical diabetes which is Mamma Mia! To the politically ambiguous The Iron Lady, film and theatre director Phyllida Lloyd is nothing if not versatile. Seeking to avoid the large scale filmmaking ventures of the past, Lloyd’s release of Herself entrusts itself to the daily exhaustion women, and mothers face daily in their efforts to maintain dignity and independence.
Lloyd crafts precisely what her intentions were – continuing to tell authentic stories about, and starring women. Written and starring Clare Dunne, Herself centres on the struggles working-class single-mothers undertake to rebuild their lives, in this case following an abusive relationship. Sandra works every hour the lord gives her, and then some as she cares for her daughters. A chance encounter working for an old family friend leads to a series of events in which she can build a home, a safe home away from her ex Gary, but it has to be done quickly, silently and away from authoritative eyes.
Herself has something more profound in inspiration than a sure-fire ‘hit’ at the box-office. The integral reason for the success of the film is the stitching together of a psychological rebuilding – not of the physical home, but the metaphorical work Sandra puts into herself. Dunne’s script is authentic in the depiction of abuse as intense, but not oversaturated or obscene. Now, this isn’t to shy from the brutality of domestic violence, but rather to reaffirm that Sandra is not only her abusive relationship with Gary. That she is more than her suffering and the repetition of the singular event the audience sees is enough to reinforce the damage unfurling itself mentally, but the journey she goes on is the real focus.
Herein lies the facile issues of a tremendously well-performed film. The volatility and earthen nature of the script are dampened by less grounded side-roles and decisions. Not seeking doom and gloom, stories of those who have left abusive relationships needn’t centre themselves in misery, but Herself stumbles into a balancing issue as the supporting cast feel less stable, less investable. Pleasant and punchy Aido is indeed brought to life by Conleth Hill’s bouncy charm, but he and Harriet Walter’s Peggy just can’t find their place in the narrative outside of being providers.
Herself is at its most successful when developing the relationship Sandra has with her children, in no small part down to the fabulous performances from Ruby Rose O’Hara and Molly McCann who sell their adoration for their mother, and understanding of the events surrounding them with radiant authenticity. The relationships they build with Danne should play a larger part in the film, rather than equal footing to the branching plot threads.
Character framing is usually Lloyd’s masterstroke with theatre, particularly capturing the precise moment of climax in an emotional transition. The understanding of openly demonstrating Sandra at her lowest, and eventual recovery, is something which Lloyd’s filmmaking should excel at doing, as Dunne is certainly bringing her all.
Aesthetically, however, Herself is messy. The opposing sides of light and darkness find no compromise as it lurches between aspirational and up-beat to a gritty, grounded film. The infusions of musical interludes demonstrate the imbalance best, where the epilogue captures the emotions Sandra feels without need for dialogue, using only lighting and song stand starkly to the cover of Titanium as the house develops makes for a soppy tv-advert, stripping the autonomy and dignity the film has been building.
Demonstrating the frustrations of a broken, but a desperate system, not of villains or uncouth social workers but people working to the bone with minimal resources and a lack of coherent or organised sympathy. Dunne’s script understands the system better than most in a frankly honest way, seeking not to point the finger at those other than the abuser.
So no, Herself isn’t necessarily revolutionising cinematic depictions but it is stirring the right emotions to flicker people into realising the vital nature of these narratives. It hinges on performances, rather than writing or direction, and on this, it can steadily rely on the brilliance of Dunne’s performance.
Herself has been released in select cinemas