Clare Dunne writes and stars in Herself, a quintessentially Irish domestic abuse drama that rises above every cliché available through sheer force of personality alone. While ticking off nearly every cheesy trope in the book, Herself remains a highly effective tale of a woman picking herself up and rebuilding her life. Expect this to have some strong domestic buzz once it is released across the British Isles.
Dunne plays Sandra, who starts the film married to the abusive Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson). He confronts her after finding a wad of escape cash hidden in their car and batters her relentlessly. After she escapes and finds temporary accommodation with her two daughters— a hotel where the owner forces her to use the back entrance — getting back on her feet proves to be an almost impossible task. This is Dublin after all, where even with rental assistance finding a flat of one’s own can be next to impossible. On a whim, she googles “build your own house” and discovers that it is actually doable for the small cost of €35,000. All she has to do is get a team together.
Movies like this rest on the power of their supporting cast, which Herself provides in spades (both literally and figuratively). Game of Thrones-alumni Conleth Hill plays a very different man from Varys, a tough Ulster constructor who might be the very definition of “harsh but fair”; agreeing to build the house for free but only under his own very strict rules. Equally brilliant is English royalty Harriet Walter, playing an elderly and infirm woman who starts as Sandra’s at-home employer, before lending her own backyard in order to help Sandra realize her dream.
Once she starts planning her new home, Herself moves beyond mere Ken Loach-style kitchen sink drama and into the feel-good realm, providing a paean to the power of community spirit, motherhood, and inner strength. In a time when it feels like economic uncertainty is the new norm, Herself shows what can be done when a group of people comes together to work for the greater good. Admittedly corny in several spots, it more than makes up for its wet screenplay through the strength of Dunne’s performance, which doesn’t hit a false note throughout. And with far more humour than you could expect from this genre of film, Herself allows its lighter side to further contrast against and deepen its traumatic elements.
The dark subject matter may be quite far from the sunny world of director Phyllida Lloyd’s Mamma Mia, but the essential concept — woman tries to build her dream home set to corny songs — is more or less the same. And just like while watching Mamma Mia, my core emotional reaction overrode my critical capacity. A case in point is somehow feeling moved by the use of David Guetta and Sia’s “Titanium”. This is a song I have always hated but felt suited to the raw, unvarnished power of this quite devastating film. Bulletproof, nothing to lose, indeed.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on October 9, 2020, as part of our coverage of the London Film Festival.