Review: Herself

Herself (2021)
Director: Phyllida Lloyd
Writers: Clare Dunne & Malcom Campbell

I’m calling it: Herself is the first movie of the Biden Era. It’s empathetic, kind, and emotionally direct. It’s the kind of movie where characters say things like, “you impress me so much.” It would not have been out of place for anyone to remark, “Here’s the thing about life: there are some days when we need a hand and there are other days when we’re called upon to lend one.” Set in Ireland, Herself centers on a single mother, Sandra, who needs help starting over after leaving an abusive marriage. Her employer, friends, and acquaintances quickly come to her aid, volunteering to help her build a house for her and her two young children. It sounds corny, but isn’t in the least, because director Phyllida Lloyd makes room for the complexity of abusive relationships, as well as the lingering psychological and physical trauma. This isn’t a story where everything is okay in the end, but it is one where people are decent and kind to one another, and do their best to fix what is broken and heal one another.

From the trailer, which included scenes of Sandra’s house under construction, I expected Herself to be something like an episode of the British home-building reality series, Grand Designs. I sat down in front of the TV with a big pile of laundry to fold, expecting something lightweight and feel-good. But within three minutes I realized I was watching something with much higher emotional stakes. In a devastating scene, Sandra reaches the breaking point in her relationship and leaves her abusive husband, taking her children with her. Her decision to leave her marriage means that she is homeless, and must navigate the welfare system, as well as court-ordered custody arrangements — shockingly, her husband still has access to the children, even after they have witnessed his abuse. The state puts her up in a hotel, which she must enter through the back stairwell, so as not to offend the paying guests. She works multiple jobs, trying to make ends meet while saving up for a permanent home. It’s grueling and hopeless. And this is just the first fifteen minutes of the movie.

Clare Dunne, who stars as Sandra, also co-wrote the movie with Malcolm Campbell, and has a deep understanding of her character. She shows us the complexity of Sandra’s feelings for her ex-husband, Gary, who keeps trying to win her back after she leaves. She’s not tempted to return to the marriage, but she feels guilt and sadness over the fact that she was unable to help Gary, to “fix him,” as she puts it. She knows that Gary’s abusive behavior comes from his upbringing, and that in order to break the cycle of abuse, she has to leave him behind. Dunne’s sensitive writing and performance allow for Sandra’s ambivalence and sorrow. It’s not a simple equation where Gary is the bad guy and she’s happy to leave him behind.

The children in this movie are alway very well-written. Molly McCann and Ruby Rose O’Hara give natural and easygoing performances as Molly and Emma, Sandra’s young daughters. I can’t remember a word of their dialogue, and that’s a good thing: they aren’t wise children, and they aren’t precocious. They’re just kids, doing kid things. Sandra does her best to prevent them from becoming pawns in her separation and divorce proceedings, but the behavior of one of the girls ends up becoming a point of conflict between Sandra and her ex, and eventually the court must intervene. In a relatively subtle way, Herself shows how the legal system can undermine the survival and psychological well-being of survivors of domestic abuse by giving their abusers access and information that they wouldn’t otherwise have.

Herself is an an Amazon Original, and is streaming for free on Prime. It was released the first week of January without a lot of fanfare, and it’s one of those streaming movies you might overlook, or — as I did — mistake it for a glorified episode of Grand Designs. But this is a really well-acted, insightful drama that doesn’t offer any easy answers, but does let you connect to its characters.

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