Director of Mamma Mia! and The Iron Lady, Phyllida Lloyd, returns with a more modest, unpretentious drama about resilience and empowerment titled Herself. Unlike his previous films, nothing is particularly spectacular about the plot or the background of the protagonist, Sandra (portrayed magnificently by Clare Dunne, who also co-write the story with Malcolm Campbell), except for her struggle and determination. The protagonist’s self-emancipation is the center-piece and it’s the driving force that gives herself a purpose: to provide a house for her children by herself.
Related Post: Review: Promising Young Woman (2020)
Set and shot in Ireland, Herself begins where other films of similar theme ends or, at least, culminates—when the protagonist escapes from the claw of her abusive domestic partner and father of her two children, Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson). In an ill-prepared escape plan coded “Black Widow”, she brings along her two daughters (Molly McCann and Ruby Rose O’Hara). Sandra understand perfectly that leaving the marriage means she will abandon all the comfort and sense of financial security for her and the children. First and most importantly, she no longer has access to a permanent house to shelter her and the children; meanwhile, negotiations with local bureaucracies to obtain options for housing is proven fruitless. For that, she has to make enough money to live and to find temporary shelter even if that means she has to work a double job and do the unthinkable: building her own house.
One part of Herself deals with Sandra surviving the post-traumatic moments by herself to support her children. Another part that turns out as important as Sandra’s resilient struggle is the community’s role in helping her to achieve her goal, in this case, to build the house. In the process, she enlists helps from any available source from her mother’s acquaintance, Peggy (Harriet Walter), to an unlikely ally, Aido (Conleth Hill), who happens to be Gary’s friend. Assisted by a diverse community she has been asking help for free, she builds the house every weekend after dropping her children to her ex’s house for custodial assessment. A taste of optimism begins to radiate, but, in the background, however, her trauma keeps haunting him while Gary always has something in his pocket to force Sandra to the brink of her sanity.
Related Post: Review: Marriage Story (2019)
It’s surprising, albeit not unpredictable, to see how Herself pans out with its narrative direction. Community solidarity is not a common force utilized in stories like these; but, it’s a pivotal element in real life to help people overcome the trauma and plan out the baby steps to rediscovering themselves. The voluntariness, however, is a little too good to be true, except when it’s intended as the film’s primary message to convey. There’s a good reason the voluntary community help matters: it’s how this film also works as a taut commentary towards the system that sometimes doesn’t make it any easier for those in need.
It’s not coincidence that in the brink of Brexit, UK bureaucracies have become a target of social commentaries in the recent years whether for the domestic policy or others (as in His House that bites on asylum process). While it’s never fully integrated and elaborated in the narrative, the political commentary is the engine that somehow fuels Herself. The house that Sandra builds symbolizes her freedom and independence to stand by herself while, at the same time, portrays the independence the community takes from the system that complicates their life. After all, the true power of this comes in the nature of determination to care and the solidarity to overcome system that complicates a woman’s eagerness to raise her children away from her abusive partner.