Director: Phyllida Lloyd
Stars: Clare Dunne, Conleth Hall, Harriet Walter
Dublin’s housing problem and escalating counts of domestic violence – and the linkages between the two – are fine and worthy social issues to investigate in film. Indeed, for Clare Dunne, Herself has been a passion project for the better part of a decade, since she started assembling the bones of the idea. In the end she wound up playing the lead role – wait for it – herself, taking on the persona of Sandra Kelly; a woman running out of options who takes the concept of rebuilding her life literally.
Phyllida Lloyd might seem like a surprise choice to carry this vision through for us. Lloyd is probably best known for her prestige Thatcher biopic and the cupcake delights of the Mamma Mia! films; far flung from a gritty tale of abuse, court battles and hard communal graft. In truth, Lloyd is more versatile than those glittery musicals might suggest; having shepherded a number of all-female Shakespeare productions into fruition in the intervening years, also.
She switches gears here with some gusto, though there are a fair few tonal collisions that make the going bumpy. Consider the opening scene, which flips from Sandra and her children dancing merrily in the kitchen, to Sandra’s violent partner Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson) battering her to the ground within seconds. Herself is perfectly willing to go from a B*Witched knees-up to an embittered custody hearing and back again, leaving you whirling in the middle.
Having left Gary, Sandra finds herself temporarily housed in an airport hotel that’s too ashamed of its own philanthropy to let her in through the lobby. Eking out enough money to make ends meet, she works two cleaning jobs, one of which is at the middle class home of dodgy-hipped Peggy (Harriet Walter). Dissatisfied with the council’s housing scheme (on which she’ll have to wait for years), Sandra starts looking into the possibility of a self-build. In a move which frankly beggars belief, Peggy offers up her back garden as a plot for the project. Sandra wrangles Conleth Hall’s builder Aido to foreman the project and, over a succession of weekends, the project (also completely financed by Peggy) gets underway with the assistance of a ragtag bunch of volunteers from a nearby squat.
For the cynically minded, its a lot to swallow, but Herself carries on regardless, leaving the viewer to either accept its halcyon depiction of grassroots cross-class community spirit or get left behind. Go with it, however, and the film becomes something of a rebuke to the socialist misery porn peddled by the likes of Ken Loach, suggesting that you can represent and empower through cinema without browbeating an audience into submission. Its a wonky ride, for sure, but one not lacking in spirit.
Away from the construction site escapades, we bare witness to a believable battle for custody of the children. Sandra tries to keep her grand design a secret from Gary. The courthouse scenes are where Dunne’s closeness to the project really reveals itself. It’s quite the performance from Dunne, and the determination and resilience of the character is impressive. But, not for the last time, the script feels the need to throw subtlety to the wind. Subtext rapidly becomes text as Peggy up-chucks a redundant speech underlining the very points being made in the drama. It’s not even the worst example of this. At the end of the picture, a character so buried in the peripheries that we don’t even recognise her at first is given the same blunt-force word salad, just in case we haven’t been watching for a solid 90 minutes.
Still, there’s a lot of literal thinking going on here. Sandra’s self-build is a rather looming metaphor for finding the guts and determination to start over from scratch. Giving over to this conceit is a lot more fun than stiffly turning your nose up at it. The gesture has heart, so much so that whenever trouble or tragedy encroaches on the development, its hard not to wince or feel protective of it. This, one imagines, is also down to how Dunne’s Sandra acts around the site. There may be a chaotic sense about Herself, an ungainly forward momentum, but Dunne is its beating heart and her work here is the kind of career-best outpouring that typically comes from hard graft. She’s put her all into Herself and reaps the benefits of having done so.