The Plot: After being assaulted in her home by husband Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson), Sandra (Clare Dunne) finally makes the brave decision to leave him and take their two young daughters with her. Now effectively homeless, she lives at a Dublin Airport hotel while waiting for a housing list offer to come through. That could take a long time. After some inspiration from her daughter, Sandra hits upon the idea of building her own house on the unused property of Peggy (Harriet Walter), an ailing doctor who is more kindly than she seems. She’s going to need help, so she ropes in reluctant builder Aido (Conleth Hill) and a group of friends to work weekends on her dream home to house her daughters. There’s trouble on the horizon though, as Gary seeks a custody battle…
The Verdict: In an upside-down year which seems to keep throwing curveballs at us all, it’s refreshing to come across a film that is both reassuringly positive and humane. As we head into dark winter days, new Irish-UK co-production Herself is the kind of film that needs a physical audience where you can feel the good vibes generated by a responsive audience. Actor/producer Sharon Horgan and her new production outfit Merman certainly seem to have their fingers on the right pulse when it comes to nurturing female talent and female-led stories that have resonance beyond the screen. The driving force in Herself is another actor, Clare Dunne. In only her third feature film and first screenplay, she’s produced a singular portrait of a single mother escaping the past and trying to build a better future for herself and her daughters.
The idea for the film came from a friend, who had found herself in a similar domestic situation. The homebuilding element came from ‘a very simple desire to unravel the chains that are around it in our heads’, as Dunne puts it. Owning our piece of turf and a home on it is an Irish obsession of course. The film builds up that idea of self-help when nobody in authority can offer help. Dunne’s script outwardly looks like an uplifting story about a woman at a crossroads in her life. A symbolic shot shows Sandra sitting on the ground in despair as an airplane flies overhead, the yearning for escape and a chance to start again striking. She makes a creative effort to use her time wisely, building a home as not just a place to live but also a protective environment for her children. Scratch the surface more though and other themes bubble up.
The social issues element of the film is certainly prevalent, making it a spiritual cousin to Rosie – which also came from Element Pictures. Unlike the necessarily bleak reality of that film, Herself builds upon those themes and channels it into creative energies for a more positive outlook. It becomes apparent that the film is less about the novelty of building your own house and more about the warmth of community spirit and being free to control your own destiny. Dunne’s script has a necessary dose of reality bites to ground that dream, but achieves the right balance of character to literally build it up into a three-dimensional story that is quite affecting. Dunne and director Phyllida Lloyd are keen to stress that Sandra is not a victim or a prisoner and that certainly rings true.
In her direction, Lloyd taps into the heartfelt spirit of the story and delivers a powerful film that is more satisfying than either of her two previous films (The Iron Lady and, er, Mamma Mia!). It’s Dunne that impresses the most though. Giving a subtle and impassioned performance full of joy, heartbreak, humour and defiance, she’s remarkable. Herself doesn’t lose sight of its main character and her predicament. Much like her, it channels that energy into the right places at the right time. Herself is a grand film allright. Home is where the heart is indeed.
Rating: 4 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
Herself (Ireland / UK / TBC / 97 mins)
In short: Home sweet home
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd.
Starring Clare Dunne, Harriet Walter, Ian Lloyd Anderson, Conleth Hill.