LFF ‘20 — ‘Herself’ is a Brief yet Invigorating Tale of Survival

A still from 'Herself. Sandra (Clare Dunne) stands outside holding her daughter who is about 3 years old. She stands next to a man in construction gear, a high vis vest and hard hat. Sandra is smiling at someone else who is not shown in the image.

From the very start, Sandra (Clare Dunne) is a wonderful mother. She plays with her daughters (Molly McCann and Ruby Rose O’Hara), letting them express themselves, dance and shout. She teaches them to love their own unique qualities, just like how she spins a sweet origin for the distinctive birthmark under her eye. 

This bubble of domestic comfort is burst by the return of her aggressive and abusive husband. Her life is narrowly saved by an emergency backup plan reliant on her eldest daughter getting help. Months later, as the injuries heal, Sandra is working two jobs and her girls are in temporary accommodation, a painstaking hour long drive away from their school. 

Dublin is a far cry from the Greek island haven that director Phyllida Lloyd is known for, but as Sandra becomes determined to build a house, Herself shares the same can-do spirit and joy of human connection as Mamma Mia. Plucking up the courage to ask for help is a huge step, and to compensate for the other aspects of her hard knock life, the process of the build is like a Cinderella story. Conleth Hill’s character, though begrudging, has an immensely comforting screen presence and national treasure Harriet Walter is the fairy godmother in this scenario. She carries the same empowering maternal magic as Meryl Streep, in the shape of a retired doctor only too happy to help. 

The friends that orbit the little family share just enough screen time to be distinctive but not enough to steal the spotlight. For the most part, they’re the angels sent to help and despite the charisma of Mabel Shah and Anita Petry, don’t quite have the dimensions to make them believable. Nonetheless, they’re lovable enough to power several hopeful house-building montages that eclipse the previous connotations of the well known song choices like Titanium by Sia and Dreams by The Cranberries.

Sandra is one of many, not just Sandras in Dublin, but women fighting to free themselves from abusive homes, waiting in limbo on a never-ending house list. Dunne is electric as a fiercely protective mother, summoning the strength for the sake of her beautiful children. It’s a heart-wrenching and tear-inducing performance that does justice to the women she represents. Less about building a physical home, Sandra rebuilds herself, boosted by the strength of others when she struggles, as all those like her should be. 

Herself screened as part of the virtual edition of BFI London Film Festival 2020

by Fatima Sheriff

Fatima (she/her) is a biomedical sciences graduate and aspiring science communicator. Literary adaptations with beautiful soundtracks call to her, but she enjoys anything with an original concept, witty writing, diverse casting or even the briefest appearance of Dan Stevens. Her favourite films do fluctuate but her love for Paddington 2 is perennial. She can be found on Letterboxd @sherifff and on Twitter here.

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