Herself: LFF Review. By Jack Hawkins.
After Mamma Mia!, The Iron Lady, and then Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, director Phyllida Lloyd has said that she ‘doesn’t want to make another blockbuster!’ To realise this, she has directed her first piece of social realism, joining peers such as Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank), Clio Barnard (The Selfish Giant) and Sarah Gavron (Rocks). Frankly, emotional manipulation causes Herself to fall short of those titles, but it certainly isn’t without merit.
The story concerns Sandra (Clare Dunne), an Irish mother of two girls who vows to build her own home after leaving her abusive partner Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson). The script wastes no time in establishing this, opening with a short and nasty scene of domestic violence in which Gary knocks her to the ground and stomps on her hand, causing nerve damage. Weeks later, we see Sandra and her girls Emma (Ruby O’Hara) and Molly (Molly McCann) – both great performers –living in a hotel room.
The following 20 minutes are sure to make you feel terrible. Sandra has no friends and no family beyond the girls; she counts only Jo (Cathy Belton), a women’s charity worker, as a support system. A freelance cleaner, most of Sandra’s interactions are with employers who show her casual disrespect. Indeed, almost everyone treats with Sandra with an unlikely degree of impatience and contempt. It is the first sign that Herself is contriving to evoke maximum sympathy from the audience, to jerk tears and wrench hearts. Yet the strength of Dunne’s performance – and the general grounding of Sandra’s desperate situation – is enough keep you interested.
After viewing a particularly rancid flat offered for a laughable €1000pcm, Sandra’s outlook is bleak. It seems her life will consist of a hotel room, a slavish job and the shadow of her loathsome husband. However, the narrative changes course when she reads of houses that can be built for €35,000. Having no Internet connection of her own, Sandra conducts secret research on the laptop of employer, Peggy (Harriet Walker), a cantankerous doctor recovering from a hip injury. Such skulduggery will surely see her out the door, but when Peggy discovers Sandra’s trail of search terms, she is revealed to be more benevolent than battle-axe, offering Sandra a patch of land and a generous repayment scheme to build her home.
Again, the film’s emotional intent is obvious during all of this but it’s hard to resist Sandra’s good fortune, especially when the performances are this strong. The film is visceral when it needs to be, too, depicting Sandra’s posttraumatic stress with a thumping, disorientating heartbeat as she struggles to collect herself. Don’t expect easy answers or perfect resolutions, either, because you won’t get them, especially in one shock moment. But then, alas, is the schmaltz and outright naffness, especially a building montage set to the tune of David Guetta’s ‘Titanium’, which reminds one of being stuck in a minicab or queuing at a McDonald’s restaurant.
Some will be more receptive to Herself’s engineered emotion than others, but Phyllida Lloyd must be happy either way, because with both small names and a small budget, she has clearly succeeded in not making another blockbuster. Unfortunately, though, cheese and contrivance will prevent an otherwise very watchable drama from joining the new women-led oeuvre of social realism.
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