Herself (2020)

After escaping an abusive marriage, a young Irish mother’s plan to self-build a home is fraught with complications in director Phyllida Lloyd’s empowering Herself.

Building the Dream

by Chris Drew


CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Director Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia, The Iron Lady) returns with a gem of a film with the story of Sandra (co-writer Clare Dunne, Spider-Man: Far from Home) who, in a harrowing opening, we see suffering horrendous physical abuse at the hands of her husband Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson, Game of Thrones).

After breaking free of Gary, Sandra juggles working in a bar and as a cleaner for Peggy (Dame Harriet Walter, Sense and Sensibility) while desperately trying to get on the housing ladder and staying in various hotel rooms with daughters Emma and Molly.

A story Emma tells one bedtime unexpectedly plants a seed with Sandra and she is soon investigating the possibility of building a home. Fortuitously, help comes in the form of Peggy’s generosity and large unused back garden and Sandra goes on a thoroughly engrossing journey to make the dream a reality.

It’s relatively rare for a film to successfully combine gritty human drama with an empowering and uplifting tale while filtering it with a steady undercurrent of suspense – will Sandra’s ex or the authorities discover her plan – and an element of courtroom drama as the joint custody agreement comes under significant threat – and yet writer/star Dunne and director Lloyd succeed on all fronts.

Dunne’s captivating and beautifully natural performance is front and centre, and makes it easy to root for Sandra and become hugely invested in her journey. Walter adds gravitas as Peggy, while Anderson makes a suitably menacing estranged husband.

While also being about the kindness and support of strangers, Herself is very much about a woman’s independence and determination to make things happen for her family, which feels timely in 2021 and marks Dunne as a real talent to keep an eye on.

Herself screened at the BFI London Film Festival and is released on 10 September 2021 in the UK.

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