LFF 2020: Herself – Review

Release Date – 10th September 2021, Cert – 15, Run-time – 1 hour 37 minutes, Director – Phyllida Lloyd

A mother (Clare Dunne) escapes an abusive relationship with her two daughters and decides to build a house for them to finally live in safety.

Mamma Mia! and The Iron Lady, two very different films from the same director. It’s been nine years since we last saw a feature film from Phyllida Lloyd – having worked on a number of Shakespeare stage performances for the past few years. However, now she returns with her third feature, Herself. Telling the story of Irish mother Sandra (Clare Dunne), her life seems to be filled with joy and escape. Spending the morning care-free playing with her kids around the house. The sun shines through the window, life couldn’t possibly get better than this. And that seems very true when her partner Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson) returns home. Instantly resorting to beating her there’s a clear history of this treatment in Sandra’s screams, sending one of her daughters running for help, she will escape this, and yet this is only hoped for by the viewer, they can’t truly believe while they’re seeing Sandra be taken to the ground. It’s a harsh opening but it truly forms a strong connection with the central character.

As Sandra finds herself and her children placed into temporary beds, in a nearby hotel, she becomes more certain that she will find a place of safety where she can finally be in peace with her family. It’s then, after seeing various DIY promotions, that she decides to build her own house; although it’s clear that she’ll need all the help she can get. With no experience herself she eventually gets the help of some of her friends – including the woman who she cares for (Harriet Walker), who allows her to use space in her expansive garden to build her potential home – and initially reluctant builder Aido (a restrained and very funny Conleth Hill). The group gradually set to work putting together the structure of the new house. A sense of teamwork and community fills the film. It’s a genuine joy to see it all come together, a large warm smile spreading across your face as it does for the characters. At one point as the camera pans up part of the wooden structure you sit there in open-mouthed astonishment at what you’re seeing. These people are building a house! It all revolves around the quote “people come forward to help each other and by doing that they help themselves” – something which is felt throughout and truly creates an immense sense of uplift.

Yet amongst all of this Sandra’s worries are not forgotten. Her abusive ex lurks as a threat in the background of her life and mind. Trying to see his kids, doing his best to get custody. It’s during such points that the viewer truly realises their investment in the character and what she is trying to achieve. Helped by Lloyd’s direction, co-write Dunne, alongside Malcolm Campbell, gives a fantastic leading performance. She captures the true pain and hope of her character as she struggles to build a new life for her family while it seems to be knocked down or threatened at each turn. There’s a real emotional connection with her throughout the film that carries you along the fine flow of the piece. You’re there to support her and will her on like those who volunteer to help her along the journey.

As everything comes together you get a film that brings delight in its uplift and real emotion when it comes to the adversities that the characters face. It all blends together really well, inviting the viewer in to spend time with strong, well-developed characters, particularly the titular Herself. It’s definitely something different from Lloyd, and absolutely her best film so far. A fantastic feature with strong efforts from the whole cast and crew who have clearly poured their hearts and souls into each element of the piece to make it as great as it can be, while also having a good time. That shows and allows the audience to be part of the communal sense of the film, enjoying it even more. Being caught up in a film that, like the structure of the house, is strongly, specifically and finely crafted.

From start to finish Herself is a real journey for the characters and the audience who get to watch it. Filled with heart, humour and emotion it’s truly a great film with a lot held within its short and fast-flowing 97 minute run-time. A genuine delightful hit.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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