Day 2 of London Film Festival proved to be a little busier than my first as I had not one but two films to watch back-to-back. The first of these was Herself, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, starring Claire Dunne and Harriet Walter with an original script written by Dunne and Malcolm Campbell. The film revolves around Sandra (Dunne), a victim of domestic abuse, who sets out to build her own house for herself and her girls. Working two jobs, dealing with the council and assessments, taking the girls to visit their dad and gathering a team for the house, Herself shows what can happen when you put your mind to something and never give up. It’s a brilliant film that looks at the treatment of domestic abuse in Ireland as well as the housing crisis.
The film opens with Sandra and her girls having lots of fun together, doing make-up and singing songs. This happiness is shattered when Sandra’s abusive ex, Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson), turns up and attacks her brutally. It is a difficult scene to watch because of its realistic approach and refusal to hide the horrors. What follows is Sandra’s struggle to find a house to rent. As Gary goes to live at his parents house, Sandra and the girls are forced to live in a hotel while she waits on the housing list. The script is wonderfully written and really allows the audience to see Sandra’s struggle beneath the surface. What makes Herself a standout is its resonance and the erratic shift in tone. Just as could be expected, Sandra’s life could be stable one minute and collapse like a house of cards the next. The script does a good job of building up the struggle with the final act resulting in a culimation of emotion and hardwork.
Dunne’s performance as Sandra is flawless. She perfectly conveys the struggle Sandra is facing and the many factors and obstacles that threaten to stop her dreams. She is exhausted but resilient and this makes for a resonating character who isn’t perfect but she is trying her best. The courtroom scene is both heartbreaking and angering as the injustice Sandra faces shouldn’t have to be argued. Gary damages the nerves in Sandra’s hand at the beginning and she turns that pain in physically building her escape from him. The whole film becomes a metaphor for Sandra bettering the situation for her girls and finding sanctuary away from Gary. Whereas Gary is able to live with his parents and await the visits from his daughters, Sandra is constantly assessed by the council, struggling to find a suitable home while facing judgement from fellow mothers and working two jobs. Despite Sandra’s many roles in society, Dunne makes sure that she gives her character a distinct personality. Faced with many hardships, Sandra is fearless and unafraid to go ahead with her plan and builds the confidence to stick up for herself. The character arc she goes through is emotional and rough contributing to an unforgettable performance.
In supporting roles, there are a couple of familiar faces and plenty of newcomers, led by the wonderful Harriet Walter who plays Peggy, the doctor Sandra cleans and cares for part time. Peggy comes across as stubborn and hard initially but as the film progresses, she begins to let her guard down and allows herself to be vulnerable as she assists Sandra in building the house. Also in support is Conleth Hill as Aido, a local construction worker who eventually agrees to help Sandra build her house. Aido doesn’t understand Sandra’s plan until she mentions Gary and he agrees to help her. Hill isn’t onscreen a lot of time but is a welcome presence whenever he is. The supporting cast is rounded out by Molly McCann and Ruby Rose O’Hara who do fantastic performances as Sandra’s daughters, Molly and Emma, respectively.
Despite its heavy themes, Herself proved to explore the injustices of domestic violence victims by showing Sandra at her highs and lows. With the film shown from Sandra’s perspective her motivations and reasonings for her actions are fully understood by the audience. Even when it becomes too much for her to handle, she still keeps fighting. With its mix between newcomers and recognisable names, Herself has established itself already as a huge highlight from this festival and I hope it carries on its success.
Herself will be released in the UK on the 16th October.