Phyllida Lloyd opens her new film “Herself” with an unforgettable scene that goes from sweet to harrowing in a matter of seconds. Two darling little girls put makeup on their mom, softly giggling with each stroke of rosey red lipstick and gold eyeshadow. Before long the three are dancing in the kitchen, the room full of music, smiles and laughter. Then the music stops as the husband and father enters the room. He orders the girls to go outside and then begins a violent, stomach-churning assault on his wife. The images of it haunts her and us for the rest of the movie.
“Herself” is an interesting mix of clear-eyed movie realism and life-affirming drama. It takes an honest and unadorned look at the lasting effects of domestic abuse and confronts the slow-moving legal system that harshly punishes the victim for signing a form wrong but considers putting children in the custody of the abuser despite clear evidence of his crimes. But the film has another side, one that doesn’t write our world off just yet. One that reminds us there is good out there; that compassionate and empathetic people do still exist.
Irish actress Clare Dunne plays Sandra, the victim of the above mentioned domestic assault. After the distressing opening scene, we see she has left her abusive husband and now works two jobs just to put food on the table for her daughters Emma (Ruby Rose O’Hara) and Molly (Molly McCann). She’s also forced to move from place to place, living in hotels and housing that accepts city assistance. Meanwhile she’s required to keep in touch with her abusive husband Gary who wields his visitation rights like a weapon. But through it all, the film stresses Sandra’s inspiring fortitude and her unbending love for her children.
Hungry to provide a more stable life for her daughters, Sandra is inspired by an internet video to build her own low-cost home. But she can’t do it alone. This is where the film’s faith in humanity brings a warm and welcomed ray of light. Sandra encounters a series of people sympathetic to her plight who help her in a myriad of ways. It starts with one of her employers, a widow named Peggy (Harriet Walter) who donates a plot of land. A former contractor named Aido (Conleth Hill) agrees to help with the building and before long other people join the project. Meanwhile Sandra has to dodge stupid government regulations that threaten to upend her hopes of having a house of her own.
Dunne not only delivers an incredibly natural performance but is also given story credit and co-wrote the screenplay with Malcolm Campbell. You sense her passion as much in her writing as in her acting. “Herself” has a lot on its mind and it’s not afraid to look at real-world issues with a critical eye. At the same time Lloyd and Dunne clearly have a belief that there is goodness in the world and they show it without becoming mawkish or stumbling into over-the-top melodrama. And even during its more inspiring moments, there are frequent reminders of the hardships lurking in the background for people like Sandra. “Herself” is now streaming on Prime Video.
VERDICT- 4 STARS