Calling a film Mike Leigh-lite might be considered an insult in some circles, but when referring to director Phyllida Lloyd’s domestic drama/self-empowerment story Herself, it’s actually something of a badge of honor. Foregoing many easy paths to sentimentality and heartstring tugging, Lloyd (Mama Mia!, The Iron Lady; working from a script by Malcolm Campbell and Clare Dunne) tells the story of single mother Sandra (a remarkable Clare Dunne), who has removed herself and two young girls (Molly McCann and Ruby Rose O’Hara) from an abusive marriage from husband Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson) but lives every day actively anxious that he’ll show up unannounced, while also suffering from PTSD after years of living in fear and pain.
But Sandra’s story isn’t about a life of hiding; more, it’s about her attempts to build a new life for her family by moving out of the hotel in which they currently reside and into a home of their own—a goal that seems so out of reach, she almost doesn’t dare imagine the possibility as she works two jobs and seems to never stop running around just to keep her schedule. Inspired by one of her daughter’s bedtime stories and after a bit of online research about how to build your own house for relatively little money, Sandra allows herself to dream for the first time in a while.
After failing to convince the social services people that lending her the money to build the house would be cheaper than paying for her to live in a hotel for a year, her home-ownership idea begins to fade when one of her employers comes through. Peggy (Harriet Walter), a doctor whose house she cleans and who employed her mother as well for many years (the two became close friends)—offers to donate the not insubstantial plot of land behind her house as a place to build her new house and also loan her the money for materials. After securing a kindly contractor, Aido (Conleth Hill), and a ragtag group of volunteers, Sandra is allowed to be hopeful for the first time in many years.
The specter of Gary looms large since Sandra must drop the kids off with him on the weekends, forcing her to see him regularly (he lives with his parents, which leaves him all the more humiliated). He claims to be seeing a counselor about his anger issues, but the old, violent, threatening man is still in there when they see each other. When one of his daughters refuses to spend weekends with him any more (for reasons that are unclear but turn out to be quite heartbreaking), this triggers Gary’s lawyer to say in court that Sandra is not abiding by their custody agreement. That ends up leading to the discovery of her building project, which she’d been attempting to keep a secret to avoid social services finding out her home situation was about to change.
Herself is a portrait of an emotional catastrophe, and I’m not just talking about Sandra’s constant state of mind. Nearly every character here is damaged in some way, yet they find ways of finding comfort and solace in knowing each other and working on this home-building project. As I’ve been told often by British filmmakers throughout the years, every British film is actually about class, and Herself is no exception as it spends more time than an American film might dealing with the bureaucracy and legal red tape that large segments of the population must deal with, including the financially struggling, single mothers, and abused spouses. It all seems designed to break the spirit of at-risk people and rarely seems to be about compassion or doing what’s right for those involved, especially children.
As the film progresses, I really grew to adore the bond formed between Sandra and Peggy. The film doesn’t insult us by throwing in a love interest for Sandra or anything similarly trite—a man got her into this mess; it doesn’t seem likely she’d be in the frame of mind for a new one on top of everything else she’s dealing with. The film is kept rooted in reality, and this story of literal and figurative rebuilding ended up winning me over, thanks in large part to Dunne’s understated way of conveying strength and resilience. Sandra’s attempts to keep things together for her children take a hefty toll on her spirit, and Dunne’s ability to show how good Sandra has gotten at hiding that gives the film a gut-wrenching quality that sticks with you. Prepare for a bit of crying but also moments worthy of quiet celebration.
The film begins streaming on Amazon Prime Video on January 8.
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