The Movie Waffler New to VOD - HERSELF | The Movie Waffler


herself review
A domestic abuse survivor attempts to break free from a bureaucratic system by constructing her own house.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Phyllida Lloyd

Starring: Clare Dunne, Harriet Walter, Conleth Hill, Cathy Belton

herself poster

After finding mainstream success with her all-star adaptation of the Abba musical Mamma Mia! and helping Meryl Streep nab an Oscar for her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, director Phyllida Lloyd has chosen a far more intimate type of film for her third feature, Dublin set drama Herself.

Written by Malcolm Campbell and Clare Dunne, Herself stars the latter as Sandra, a mother of two young girls (quietly affecting performances from child actresses Molly McCann and Ruby Rose O’Hara) who leaves her abusive husband, Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson), when he discovers the money she's been hiding away from him and physically assaults her. It's a skillfully edited opening sequence that takes us from a moment of maternal joy as Sandra dances with her girls in her kitchen to an instance of terror as she mouths the code "black widow" to her eldest daughter, who promptly informs a bewildered local shopkeeper of her mother's fate.

herself review

With her girls in tow, Sandra finds herself living courtesy of the council in an airport hotel, where the management insists that she enter by the rear entrance so as not to offend paying guests. She's put on a housing list, but Dublin being in the midst of one of the world's worst housing crises, her prospects of finding four walls and a roof to call her own are practically non-existent. Inspired by her daughter relating the story of St. Brigid, the Irish nun who founded a communal monastery, Sandra looks into the possibility of building a home from scratch. This begins with dubious internet research, which makes her believe she can construct a house for as little as €35,000. She pitches the council this idea, as currently it's costing the state that much per year to house her in a hotel, but she predictably hits a wall of disinterested bureaucracy.

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Following an encounter with an aging builder (Conleth Hill) sympathetic to her plight, and an act of immense charity from the retired doctor (Harriet Walter) she acts as carer to, Sandra finds herself with the money and the means to potentially realise her dream. Recruiting a ragtag team of friends, hangers-on and well-meaning volunteers, Sandra and her motley crew begin work on building a home for herself and her girls. But can she keep it a secret from both the council and her husband?

herself review

Its director may be English but Herself is a Dublin movie in a way very few movies set in the Irish capital really are. It deals with a very Dublin issue, that of the lack of housing, or rather the lack of housing affordable to the majority of the people who live in the city. As a native Dub who has found myself in the stressful and soul-destroying position of attempting to find somewhere to live in recent years, I had goose bumps watching Sandra stand in line to view properties she never had a realistic chance of obtaining, while being offered the sort of fleapits you wouldn't allow a dog to live in.

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I suspect co-writer Dunne has brought a lot of her own experience to this project. Her performance is palpably real and relatable, and she even integrates her self-consciousness regarding a birthmark under her left eye into her character's low self-esteem. But it's the little details that mark this out as a work of someone familiar with a working class existence in Dublin, from the ready cooked chickens from Centra to the almost undrinkable but dirt cheap cans of Tesco own-brand lager. If Ken Loach's films too often feel like patronising middle-class takes on working class life, Herself is the real deal.

herself review

Occasionally Lloyd interrupts the realism with indie-scored montages that play a little too close to insurance commercials, with people of all creeds and colours happily working alongside together. But this is forgivable, as the disparate bunch of diverse characters here - from Polish carpenters to jolly Cameroonian girls to bemused Brazilian housewives to exasperated Filipino hotel managers - make this the first Dublin set movie I've seen that actually resembles the multicultural melting pot the city has become in recent decades. Herself highlights the good and bad of modern Dublin, its bureaucratic failings and the enduring strength of its people, wherever they may have arrived from.

Herself is on UK/ROI VOD now.