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A home of one’s own – ‘Herself’

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Stories of reinvention have always worked well on screen. There’s a real appeal to watching people, through sheer determination and a support system willing to help, turn their lives around – particularly when they’re moving away from toxic and/or dangerous circumstances.

That idea of reinvention is central to “Herself,” newly streaming on Amazon Prime Video. The Irish film is directed by Phyllida Lloyd from a script co-written by Malcolm Campbell and Clare Dunne (who also stars); it’s the story of a woman who escapes an abusive relationship and attempts to carve out a new life for herself and her two daughters.

It’s a small film that mines great power from its intimate nature. Featuring some excellent performances and a simple story that is alternately heartwarming and heartbreaking, it’s a quietly powerful viewing experience that offers a look at just how difficult it can be to change one’s life for the better.

Sandra (Dunne) is the mother of two precocious girls, Molly (Molly McCann, “The Racer”) and Emma (Ruby Rose O’Hara, “The Secret Market”). However, her husband Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson, “The Cherry Orchard”) is emotionally and physically abusive; one day, he goes too far, leading Sandra to activate the code word she has with her elder daughter, sending the child to the local shop to ask for help. It’s not enough to save her from the vicious assault, but the authorities are finally involved.

In the aftermath of the assault, Sandra and the girls go on government housing assistance in hopes of getting help in finding a place of their own. In the meantime, they stay in a hotel room paid for by the government. Sandra works two jobs in an effort to provide for the girls, even as she’s forced to hand the girls over to their father – now staying with his parents – every weekend.

One of her jobs is cleaning and caregiving for an older woman named Jo (Cathy Belton, TV’s “Red Rock”), a retired doctor who long employed Sandra’s late mother in the same capacity. Jo is crotchety and opinionated and not at all interested in following the medical advice of others, even after having her hip replaced.

In her research looking for a new home, Sandra discovers a series of videos in which a man lays out a plan to self-build a house. It won’t be cheap – the estimated cost of materials alone is around 35,000 euros – but Sandra now has a goal. And while her initial efforts prove less than fruitful, it isn’t long before she discovers a number of people willing to do what they can to help her dream of her own home come true, including Jo and a gruff builder named Aido (Conleth Hill, TV’s “Dublin Murders”).

But the presence of her resentful ex is never far from her mind, and when he takes it upon himself to cause trouble for Sandra by taking advantage of the system, she finds herself faced with the prospect of losing everything – her family, her home, all of it. One thing is for certain, however – Sandra will not give up.

“Herself” is the kind of movie that maintains a sense of reserve even in its most emotionally charged moments – and there are plenty of those, by the way. There’s a taut intimacy to the tale, one that raises the volume by staying quiet, as counterintuitive as that may sound. Heartstrings are plucked, but every bit of feeling evoked is well-earned.

Director Lloyd does a marvelous job of endowing this small story with large impact; it’s certainly a departure from both of her previous feature directing efforts – “Mamma Mia!” and “The Iron Lady.” Despite the fact that the former is literally adapted from the stage, “Herself” is the most reminiscent of the theatrical work that has made up the bulk of Lloyd’s career. That experience in stage direction is well-wielded here, mining the kinetic from the static.

Dunne’s dual role as co-screenwriter and lead actress warrants particular notice as well. She has developed this beautiful, challenging piece (she’s co-writer, but hers is the sole story credit), finding ways to universalize the specificity of this bleak situation. That connection to the material serves her well on screen; she fully and thoroughly embodies Sandra in a way that is both understated and beautiful. It’s a wide-ranging and engaging performance, one that serves as the foundation for this truly compelling story.

The kids are lovely – both McCann and O’Hara give natural performances that belie their youth and relative inexperience, with a few moments that are simply stunning. Anderson practically oozes malice while also illustrating the abuser’s ability to mask their darkness behind a veneer of respectability. Belton is a delight as the cantankerous Jo, acerbic and sharp while also exuding an inner goodness. Hill is ebullient and gruff and charming as hell as Aido; he lights up the back half of the film. And honestly, there are another half-dozen strong performances from the ensemble, folks who show up in just a couple of scenes, but fully fill out this well-rendered world.

“Herself” is quiet, quality drama. It’s a story that feels rooted in reality, a story of a woman who refuses to concede to circumstance, choosing instead to push forward toward the world that she wants instead of settling for the world she’s been allowed. Charming and funny even as it proves unafraid of portraying bleakness, it frames reinvention as a difficult journey, but one whose destination makes it worthwhile.

[4.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 11 January 2021 17:06

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