Friday 23 October 2020

HERSELF - London Film Festival 2020

Co-written by and starring Clare Dunne, Herself tells the story of Sandra, a mother trying to rebuild a life for herself and her children after escaping an abusive relationship. Stuck on a waiting list for housing and living in an airport hotel, she decides to take charge of the situation and build a house herself.

Set around Dublin, Sandra has to juggle part-time jobs whilst also caring for and raising her two young daughters, sharing custody with the man who subjected her to horrific physical violence and emotional manipulation. Tired of living in the temporary accommodation at the airport that won't allow her to walk through the main entrance with the other guests, Sandra finds a solution in low cost housing by building a new home in the back garden of Peggy (Harriet Walter), a woman she cleans for who was close friends with her mother. Finding help from local builder Aido (Conleth Hill) and a small army of volunteers, Sandra spends her weekends secretly constructing her new home away from the gaze of her domineering ex, Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson), and the housing authorities.

Starting off with a horrifically tense scene of domestic abuse (that only comes to an end when her eldest child runs for help, triggered by a secret codeword her mother has been forced to equip her with), what's most surprising about the journey Herself takes you on is how uplifting it becomes. Thankfully, this isn't a domestic abuse drama that lingers on physical violence, and although there's moments of gaslighting and coercive behaviour peppered throughout the film, for the most part Herself is about Sandra's journey to assert herself to those around her and slowly create a world that is safe for her and her daughters. In the lead role of Sandra, Clare Dunne might not be a name you will be instantly familiar with, but she's undoubtedly a star on the rise, having co-written the film with Malcolm Campbell and given herself a chance to show her acting range. In what's a nuanced, believable portrayal of a woman at her wits end dealing with bureaucracy of housing associations and the judgemental glares of other parents at the school gates, it's of no surprise to learn that Dunn has a stage background, including working with co-star Harriet Walter and director Phyllida Lloyd on the Donmar Warehouse's all female Shakespeare Trilogy. The supporting cast are all solid, including the two decent child performances of Sandra's daughters but the film completely belongs to Clare Dunne, who's in almost every frame and is completely magnetic on screen.

Far from a gritty, Nil by Mouth-style kitchen sink drama or misery memoir, Herself is not a film that lays it on too thick, opting for subtle beats in Dunn's behaviour to show her frustration at the system that seems keen to blame her for the situation she's in, not her husband. It also has something to say about the ridiculous logic of government welfare schemes when, in what seems to be a perfectly smart bit of reasoning that of course gains little traction, Sandra points out to the authorities that rather than spend 33,000 a year on housing her and her children, for 35,000 they could build low-cost housing for her that she could then pay rent back on. The film doesn't often go down the I, Daniel Blake route, but when it does, it makes compelling arguments for the need for changes to this system.

There's a certain amount of wish fulfilment as friends and well wishers step in to help Sandra achieve her dream, but it's hard to be too cynical about a film that embraces its sentimental edges, and the sense of community spirit it has is infectious. Herself may have a shadow of darkness to it, but at its core is a pleasing, well delivered family drama, with a stand-out performance from Clare Dunn.



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