Mamma Mia’s Phyllida Lloyd returns to the big screen for Herself, a film on the opposite end of the spectrum to the bright, saturated world of Greek archipelagos. It’s also a little way from her all-female Shakespeare trio from London’s Donmar Warehouse in 2018, though collaborators Claire Dunne and Harriet Walters join her in another gripping drama.
Instead, in modern Dublin, Herself is a moving portrait of a woman, Sandra (Dunne) on welfare. Fighting a custody battle for her two young daughters against her abusive husband, she hatches a plan to build themselves a house to live in and free them from the broken social care system.
Herself carries the central tension of a mother trying to create a fairytale for her young girls while also fighting an unjust system that could see the family on a temporary housing register for years. The film isn’t all fun and games with some graphic depictions of domestic abuse and some themes viewers might find upsetting. But it’s deeply moving, rewarding all the darker moments by showing us what really matters: family, friends, and showing kindness to people who most need it.
Director: Phyllida Lloyd
Release date: 8 October 2020 (LFF)
Sandra works as a cleaner for a local patron, Peggy (Walter) and their dynamic isn’t a million miles away from Tom Harper’s 2018 LFF favourite Wild Rose, in the dynamic between a wealthy patron and her cleaner. In fact, their friendship becomes central to the story when an ailing Peggy offers some land to help Sandra in her predicament.
Sandra goes to lengths to protect her daughters from the abuse she faces, but the most striking thing of all is her decision to build her own house. She doesn’t want to be at the mercy of the welfare system and hatches an extreme but just-about possible plan to fend for herself.
Initially it seems impossible. Plans she finds on the Internet and all the good intentions in the world aren’t enough to convince the local authorities that she could save them 35k and pay them rent by the end of the year. Sure, it’s ambitious, but then she’s desperate.
Her appeals put her in the path of strangers who take kindly to the situation and want to help — it’s unlikely, but she enlists enough help to actually get her project off the ground. Any entrepreneur would be wise to look to Sandra’s tenacity and determination.
As the hopeful narrative of her project takes off, it’s almost cinematic law that circumstances head in the inverse direction in her personal life. Her ex-husband becomes increasingly demanding; it’s harder and harder to conceal her situation from other mums at the girls’ school. Visits from social workers and womens’ refuge centres become intrusive and suddenly her project becomes something she has to keep under the radar to avoid the state interfering in her optimistic vision.
During a court case in particular, the film raises questions about male/female double-standards when it comes to caring for children and joint custody. Even in the modern day, men and women are held to account by different standards.
Levelling some criticism (I have to be fair), some of the narrative felt a bit formulaic – you could see an arc forming and anticipate when characters were most susceptible to losing something. But that in no way diminished the impact of the story. While it may not have been based on a true story, the sentiment is surely universal for any parent finding themselves on welfare and wanting a better life for their children.
Herself has a fun soundtrack, which occasionally feels at odds with the film’s serious message. The cinematography feels spacious, which is unusual for a film set in working-class areas of Dublin, and there’s not the usual greyish hue of a gritty social realist drama.
Instead, we see plenty of green spaces, happy school grounds and sprawling views of the River Liffey and the gorgeous night-time cityscape of Dublin. There are a lot of really uplifting parts of the film despite its circumstances and this comes down to Lloyd’s choices with cinematography and casting. It’s as bright and neatly-trimmed as 2017’s Hampstead, which may feel an unusual comparison to make but both carry similar themes of being forced to the fringes of society and making a way for oneself.
Authentically Irish down to its use of dialect, location-shooting and even some beautiful Gaelic ballads, Herself could be dedicated to every parent who wants to make a better life for their kids. Though not always easy to watch, it challenges a lot of ideas about what makes a family and shows that nobody is tied down by what they face in life. Funded by Picturehouse, it’s some of the cream of the crop of indie cinema, elevating a story that deserves coverage.