‘Herself’: You’ll stand with Dunne in this liberating drama

“Herself” – Sandra (Clare Dunne), a lovely 30-something mom with two little girls, has a happy family.

In the opening minutes of director Phyllida Lloyd’s drama, Sandra’s kids – Emma (Ruby Rose O’Hara) and Molly (Molly McCann) – doll their mother up in makeup and immediately proceed to sing and dance in the kitchen.  Flourishing and carefree, this fun-loving triad share no worries, or so it would seem.

Sandra’s husband Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson) enters stage right.

He politely sends his daughters out of the room and enacts a brutal, violent rage on his spouse.  It suddenly becomes crystal clear that this joyous household only includes three with no room for the said fourth.

Straight away, “Herself” establishes empathy for our beaten-down (literally and physically) heroine, and although Sandra has reached bottom with her abusive husband, there’s no doubt that she’s endured mental and physical cruelty for years.  This film is about a woman attempting to gain her independence – financially and emotionally – and she’s struggling against the odds by working two jobs to stay afloat.

Domestic abuse is a gloomy circumstance that – most regrettably – has impacted millions of broken homes since men and women have nested in caves, troubled ones.

Faced with a pair of tonal choices in Malcolm Campbell and Dunne’s script, Lloyd effectively preserves a balance.  Shocking moments of Sandra’s memories, her PTSD, frequently pop on the screen and when we least expect them.  They are ugly reminders of the ruthlessness that she’s endured for so long.  However, these are momentary flashes, while most of the film squares Sandra’s struggle to feel whole again, including moments of warm humanity.

Quite frankly, this story needs some levity because otherwise, “Herself” would carry all the good cheer of “Mommy Dearest” (1981) or “Lorenzo’s Oil” (1992).

Have you seen those films?

Well, Sandra faces a steep climb to possible peace, so she seeks a network of friends.  Not waiting for a hopeful cavalry to enter her Dublin hotel room – where she and the girls temporarily stay – she frequently asks for help.

A hotel room?

Yes, Sandra, Emma, and Molly need a proper home, and our matriarch takes charge to find one.  Actually, she aims to build one.

She searches the internet for how-to help, but she also takes a personal approach to form a construction crew by directly looking at her potential prospects’ eyes and inquiring for much-needed assistance.  With the two socials – distancing and media – dominating our lives these days, her methods may not be very 2021, but they certainly feel refreshing.

By placing her grit and courage out into the world, it answers back with grace and support.  Lloyd includes plenty of players to aid Sandra.  Her coworker from the pub (Ericka Roe), her personal care employer (Harriet Walker), a construction manager (Conleth Hill) and his son (Daniel Ryan), and a few more all offer their services.  They are a merry bunch who add a welcome sense of community.

“Herself” is a close-knit Irish film, and other than thick accents, it doesn’t include many idiosyncrasies that are uniquely from Ireland, not like “Waking Ned Devine” (1999) or “The Commitments” (1991).  Be warned, North American audiences, you may need to enable close captioning on your television to decipher many spots of on-screen discourse.

Also, be warned that this is a sobering tale.  Even though Gary is (mostly) afar, the day-to-day fear is genuine because of his ever-present threat.

Dunne’s ever-present authenticity and several likable turns from Sandra’s friends and kiddos float plenty of goodwill that turns “Herself” into “Us”, sort to speak.  We’ll need every one of Sandra’s allies to combat the film’s high-stakes tension but also to sort through some expected clichés and a tad of manipulation in the third act too.  Still, you’ll probably lean in, because those first few on-screen moments of Sandra’s happy family are worth seeing again.

⭐⭐⭐  out of  ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Image and Trailer credits:  Amazon Prime Video

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