Director Phyllida Lloyd brings the bright colours and music, as she did in her box office behemoth Mamma Mia but there’s no idyllic Greek island here or even a home for the mother in this tight, stoic tale of domestic violence, family, friendship, community, crumbling housing systems and female resilience. But don’t be put off by the buzzwords. Herself also delivers some gut punches when you least expect them.
The film starts with a close up of children putting makeup on an adult. The mother, Sandra (Clare Dunne who also co- wrote the script) tells her two daughters that a mark on her face is a birth mark given to her to distinguish her from all the other Sandras in Ireland.
But we see flashes of a violent marriage. And then mother and girls leave the family home, with their belongings in pitiful bags. The brightness of the colours of the houses they leave behind contrast with their grim new circumstances. We learn too of a recently deceased and cherished granny.
The family need a new home. Sandra works two jobs, one of them cleaning for a crotchety doctor recovering from a physical injury but the housing market is a shambles. Rental properties are taken up within minutes if decent and rejected as quickly if squalid but expensive. The council housing lists are a dismal joke.
Herself shows not only fractured families but also a broken community and dismantled council system.
Sandra suffers from panic attacks and can’t help missing her abusive husband, or rather, the man he used to be. While a film like this could have been very anti-men, it strives not to be. Ian Lloyd Anderson, in the thankless role of the abusive husband, is shown to be trying to help himself by seeking counselling.
But Herself uses the domestic violence as a backdrop. This is essentially the story of resilience and necessity being the mother of invention.
When her daughter tells her a folktale about a magic cloak, Sandra gets the idea to build her own house. For £35000. This is when it’s all hands on deck from those around her. The Doctor comes forward to offer help because of the great regard she had for the dead grandmother. An over stretched builder steps in at weekends. Quickly the pieces of a jigsaw come together in the shape of a motley team of would be house builders.
The jaunty soundtrack can seem a little jarring at times considering the subject matter but thankfully this is not a film that believes it has to be utterly bleak to be ‘deep.’
Herself is a story, literally and figuratively of hard hats and boots. Sandra is building her life back up as much as she is pulling up a house.
A sense of political correctness enters the story as the diverse supporting cast does. And it’s all heading towards an uplifting tale of female empowerment. Or is it?
Herself is one to see and look out for during awards season, certainly in the Indie and British/Irish fields.