Herself finds sanctuary in a self-made cabin in the woods

Clare Dunne’s survivor of domestic abuse is the still centre at the heart of Phyllida Lloyd’s small and hopeful third feature.

8 September 2021

By Catherine Wheatley

Herself (2020)
Sight and Sound

Herself is in UK cinemas from 10 September.

Phyllida Lloyd’s first film, Mamma Mia! (2008) made over $600 million at the international box office. Her second, The Iron Lady (2011), won 13 awards, including two Oscars. After these tremendous successes, Lloyd returned to her theatrical roots, staging a trilogy of all-female Shakespeare productions set in a woman’s prison for the Donmar Warehouse. Harriet Walter starred as Brutus in 2012’s Julius Caesar, Prospero in 2016’s The Tempest, and in the title role in 2014’s Henry IV. The latter also featured relative unknown Clare Dunne as Prince Hal. Now Dunne has co-scripted Lloyd’s third film, Herself, and stars as a down-on-her-luck single mother opposite Walter’s steely doctor.

It might seem a leap – from famous stories of great men to this slight tale of an unremarkable Irish woman – but like the plays, Herself turns around themes of freedom and justice. Sandra has left her abusive husband and is seeking a permanent home for herself and her girls, eight-year-old Emma (Ruby Rose O’Hara) and six-year-old Molly (Molly McCann). Tired of the long drive from her temporary accommodation in an airport hotel to the girls’ school and despairing of anything permanent coming up in less than three years, Sandra, taking inspiration from St Brigid and an internet advert, decides to build her own home. Rather conveniently, Walter’s doctor, a cleaning client of Sandra’s, offers her land and a loan, and Sandra ropes in friends and strangers – including an almost unrecognisable Conleth Hill, best known to many as Lord Varys from Game of Thrones – to help with the construction. But Sandra’s home is made of wood, and the wolf, in the shape of ex-husband, Gary, is knocking at the door.

With its disenfranchised heroine and fierce, naturalistic child performances, there are shades of both Ken Loach’s Cathy Come Home (1966) and Sean S. Baker’s The Florida Project (2017). Director of photography Tom Comerford relies on a handheld camera for documentary effect, which also evokes a shaky, nauseous feeling well-suited to Sandra’s PTSD-related panic attacks. Scenes in housing lines and courtrooms have the veneer of social realism, while Dunne’s interaction with the two child actresses – dancing in their kitchen or juggling cases – seems largely spontaneous and infused with warmth.

Clare Dunne as Sandra in Herself

As it assembles its motley crew of misfit housebuilders, the film calls to mind, too, mid-90s British pieces such as Brassed Off (1996) and The Full Monty (1997), films that blended political critique with tragedy and broad humour. Like those films, Herself is heavy on montage sequences set to on-the-nose pop tracks, such as Sia’s ‘Chandelier’ (“I’m holding on for dear life, won’t look down won’t open my eyes”) and ‘Titanium’ (“You shoot me down but I won’t fall”) and Laura Mvula’s ‘Green Garden’ (“Take me outside, sit in the green garden, Nobody out there, but it’s OK now”): a legacy, perhaps, of Lloyd’s background in musicals. Rebecca Lloyd’s editing doesn’t dwell on the more maudlin moments, setting a brisk, back-on-your-feet pace.

Still, this is Dunne/Sandra’s film. Her journey. Herself. And her quiet, nuanced performance is at the still centre of the film. Sandra misses Gary. She wants to fix things. And yet she knows that something can’t be fixed. When the female judge asks Sandra why she didn’t leave Gary sooner, Sandra scathingly tells her to ask better questions. Because there are a million reasons why women don’t leave and fear is just one of them. Love, hope, loneliness: Lloyd’s film is excellent at capturing the range of emotions bound up with abuse.

Sandra’s ambivalence is reflected in the response of her daughters to their father. They have been raised with a code word that acts as prompt for them to run for help, should their father’s temper reach a dangerous pitch. The younger one is terrified to leave the car in his presence, but the elder one is still in thrall to his charm. To the filmmakers’ credit, it’s not hard to sympathise.

Sandra has a birthmark around her eye. She tells her daughters God put it there so he could tell her apart from all the other Sandras in Dublin. And yet while Sandra is unique, her story is sadly familiar, at least in part. Sandra’s mother-in-law tells Sandra that Gary learned his behaviour from his father; unlike Sandra she was not able to get away from her abuser. Even formidable Peggy implies that her husband was rather fond of the whiskey, and not a pretty drunk. These women may eventually gain their freedom, but to borrow a phrase from Shakespeare, the evil that men do lives after them.

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