The multi-talented Clare Dunne co-wrote this script, has a sole credit for ‘story,’ and also plays the titular ‘Herself.’ It seems fitting that this film should be a kind-of-but-not-at-all-really one-woman project, just like the house that her character, Sandra, wants to build.
Sandra’s husband, Gary (Ian Lloyd Henderson), is a violent man. Sandra’s been saving up so that she can leave him, but he finds her secret money-stash and decides to punish her. She’s clearly been anticipating the attack, and gives her oldest daughter, Emma (Ruby Rose O’Hara), the signal they’ve arranged. Emma races off to the nearest shop and shows them Sandra’s hand-written message. ‘Help. Phone the Garda. My life is in danger.’ It’s a heartbreaking moment; no one could fail to be moved by Emma’s trusting, fearful little face, imploring the shopkeeper to understand.
It works: Sandra doesn’t die. And she escapes from the relationship. But her new situation just isn’t tenable: she relies on painkillers and a wrist support to cope with the nerve damage Gary inflicted on her arm, and she’s living in a hotel room next to Dublin Airport, miles away from her daughters’ school and friends. There are no cooking facilities, and the only place for the kids to play is the multi-storey car park. Sandra has two cleaning jobs – in a bar and in a private home – and she struggles to get to them on time. Something, somewhere, has to change.
And Sandra has to make the change. Herself.
This is a deceptively gentle film, with a searing polemic at its heart. There’s Gary, wheedling for another chance. There’s the courts – for all the fall-out: the custody arrangements, the maintenance payments. And there’s the council and their housing list. When Sandra approaches them with an eminently sensible plan (“You have all this land. Lend me the money to build a house on it and I’ll pay you rent. It’ll work out cheaper than putting me up in a hotel”), it’s obvious the answer is going to be no. The person behind the desk doesn’t have the power to green-light such a project and, even if she did, the bureaucracy involved would be mind-boggling. Anyway, if places were being allocated, Sandra probably wouldn’t qualify. Not while there’s a housing shortage, and plenty of people worse off than her.
But Herself, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, is also a fairy tale, a fantasy about what might happen, if only… If only rich people shared the land they have; if only communities worked together to help those in need.
Enter, stage right: the fairy godmother – disguised here as grumpy doctor, Peggy (the inimitable Harriet Walter). Sandra’s is Peggy’s cleaner; she’s been using the doctor’s laptop to sneak a peek at YouTube instruction videos on how to build her own house, and Peggy realises she can help. She has a big garden, standing empty, with more than enough space. And she’ll also lend Sandra the money she needs.
It’s enough to get the ball rolling. Retired builder, Aido (Conleth Hill), is reluctant at first, but is swayed by his son, Francis (Daniel Ryan)’s desire to assist. He’s soon joined by a host of volunteers, all eager to make a difference. There’s a lovely lesson here: by helping Sandra, they help themselves, each acquiring a sense of purpose and accomplishment.
This is a multi-layered tale, and there are surprises here that I won’t spoil. Suffice to say, it’s unpredictable, and avoids clichés, both of character and story arc. If occasionally it veers close to mawkishness, it always cuts away in time, which is testament to Dunne and co-writer Malcolm Campbell’s skilful writing.
The two child actors (O’Hara and Molly McCann) are both terrific – natural and sweet and utterly believable – and the supporting cast is uniformly strong. But this is Dunne’s film in every way. She owns it. Herself.