This is the story of young mother Sandra who escapes her abusive husband and fights back against a broken housing system. She sets out to build her own home and in the process rebuilds her life and re-discovers herself.
It would be easy to mistake Phyllida Lloyd’s “Herself” as the latest work from director Ken Loach. Much like that filmmaker’s “Ladybird, Ladybird,” “I, Daniel Blake” and his latest, “Sorry We Missed You,” this domestic drama focuses on the barely-working class, particularly one poverty-stricken Irish woman’s efforts to combat a system seemingly built to keep her down. Though on the surface it may seem derivative, that doesn’t negate the film’s impact as Lloyd employs a quiet, subtle approach to this story that effectively shines a light on an eternal social problem, one this movie contends can be overcome through tenacity, hard work and more than a little bit of luck.
Caring for two precocious little girls, Sandra (Clare Dunne) is stretched to her breaking point. Having left her abusive husband (Ian Lloyd Anderson), she works two menial jobs to make ends meet, while she and her daughters live in government subsidized housing. Realizing she’s on a dead-end road, Sandra pursues what seems like a pipe dream – she decides she’s going to build her own house. Finding a Do-It-Yourself expert on the internet as well as plans for a basic two-story home, she sets out to learn as much as she can about basic construction, running into one roadblock after another, particularly from the local government. Where will she build her house? She doesn’t know. How will she raise the money to buy materials? That IS a problem. And just how will she do this all on her own? That’s a bridge to be crossed later.
One could easily pick apart the script by Malcolm Campbell and Dunne, as the solutions they employ to address these and other problems veer from plausible coincidence to blatant Deus Ex Machina. No matter. While Lloyd’s intent is to make a pointed political commentary – and she succeeds in doing so- there’s a degree of wish fulfillment at play here as well. That Sandra just happens to encounter a kindly contractor (Conleth Hill) is a bit of stretch. That she’s able to rally a group of giving individuals who are willing to help her, a little less so. In the long run, it doesn’t matter as Lloyd’s point is to deliver a message of salvation, a reminder that, while difficult and all too rare, it is possible to change your circumstances and that people are good and capable of great generosity.
Dunne is very good here, never taking the easy route of playing the victim but displaying a sense of strength-battered though it may be at times – that has us in Sandra’s corner from the start. No Pollyanna, she does despair but it is during these moments that the film hits its stride, providing the viewer with a sense of timely catharsis. Wonderful support is provided by Hill, never overplaying his heart-full-of-gold curmudgeon, Harriet Walter, tenacious and sympathetic as Sandra’s benefactor and Anderson as our heroine’s ex, the actor conveying a sense of palpable menace, doing very little yet casting a long, threatening shadow.
Films such as this run the risk of being dismissed as naïve or simplistic, their sincere intent brushed aside by a prevailing sense of cynicism that’s all too easy to embrace. Without question, at times it is difficult to believe in hope and charity and yet during our darkest moments, that is when we need those things most. Lloyd and Dunne understand this, “Herself” being a testament to the faith they have in the kindness of strangers and friends, as well as an inherent sense of goodness in the world. These filmmakers aren’t blindly optimistic. They realize that if we are to survive, it’s necessary that we embrace these convictions.
3 1/2 Stars
Herself is streaming on Amazon Prime.
“Herself” is a portrait of strength, determination and above all, resiliency as one woman, a mother of two girls, escapes her abusive husband. Caring for her children financially proves to be frustratingly difficult and housing becomes her number one issue. Sandra (Clare Dunne) opens herself to others for help, letting down her protective guard, and finds a new outlook on life and the future. The story, as it delves into social class and inequities, becomes an empowering one with a gut-wrenching ending.
Director Ken Loach’s innate skill of bringing realistic stories of the everyday person to life shines in “Herself.” The cast is at once engaging and Dunne’s performance is rivetingly evocative. Walk in another’s shoes and find out what it takes for one woman to truly see herself.
3 1/2 Stars