REEL Review – Herself (2020)

Director: Phyllida Lloyd | 1h 37mins | Drama

Sandra (Clare Dunne) tries to care for her children, as well as balancing two jobs, as she battles her way out of an abusive relationship. She tries to start fresh by building her own house, in order to live comfortably with her two daughters.

Mostly known for Mamma Mia! (2008) and The Iron Lady (2011), director Phyllida Lloyd takes a step away from Greek Island Musicals and Meryl Streep-led biopics, to give us a film that’s a little closer to home. Rife with social commentary, Herself is a beautiful and honest look at the struggles that victims of domestic abuse face, especially in system that is constantly working against them.

To put it lightly, Sandra is a woman who can’t catch a break. Every possible shred of hope she looks for, first in the kindness of the people around her and then in the potential of a clean slate, is broken down either by her ex-boyfriend or a system that institutionally lacks the service required to make the everyday person feel human. The opening scenes are brutally honest, as Sandra is beaten repeatedly by her boyfriend, relying on her young daughter to ask for help. It’s such a striking opening that emphasises the recurring panic she struggles with throughout the film.

Every meeting with her boyfriend is met with sharp flashbacks of this opening scene, and while it seems baffling that you need emphasise the pain a domestic abuse victim is going through, Lloyd knows just how ignorant the world can be to such things. But Sandra is a strong character, she pushes and pushes complaint free in order to make a life for her children, working as a barmaid as well as acting as a nurse to a Doctor that has suffered a broken hip. But when her housing is reduced to idly sitting by in a hotel waiting for something to happen, she stumbles on a plan to build your own house.

This is what the film does so well, paralleling the lives of so many women in the real world, giving you a false sense of security only to knock it down with a crushing blow.

It’s kind of acting like a modern fairytale, a strong woman finding her own Prince Charming in the shape of a fresh start. After no help from the government, she requires a loan to build a house in the unused garden of Peggy (Harriet Walter), who she cares for regularly. But the optimism is short-lived when her ex-boyfriend files for custardy of her the two children. This is what the film does so well, paralleling the lives of so many women in the real world, giving you a false sense of security only to knock it down with a crushing blow.

One scene in particular evokes so many emotions as an audience member, as Sandra sits in a courtroom being accused of poor mothering, and being an unreliable person due to misinforming the housing association of her housing plan. It’s infuriating, heartbreaking and almost painful to watch. Luckily for us though, Sandra delivers a powerful monologue that projects exactly what you’re thinking. How is it that she is the bad parent, when a man sitting only 20 yards away from her beat her to a pulp in front of one of their children? It’s delivered with power and vulnerability and is not the only instance of Clare Dunne giving a stunning performance.

For a woman like Sandra though it’s about the small victories, and despite those victories being soundtracked by corny pop music, they are no less important. Every raise of a beam and every hit of a nail is a step closer to a freedom Sandra longs for, but the film’s social realism reminds us that, nothing runs smoothly. This is crystal clear in the last act, as a celebration is interrupted by Sandra’s youngest daughter giving the code “Black Widow” (something that means emergency), giving the film it’s most devastating scene, wiping away any shred of hope we may have had for Sandra and her happy life.

A film that blends the giddy optimism of a feel-good movie only to strike it down with rough social realism. Herself is not only emotionally complex, but it’s overall message is so deeply tied to contemporary society, that you’ll have a hard time forgetting about it, as well as the central performance from Clare Dunne that is one of the years best.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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