Within the first five minutes of Herself we see familial harmony shattered by the spectre of domestic violence. The latest work from director Phyllida Lloyd is a marked departure from her most famous work, Mamma Mia!, instead aligning closer with her theatrical work of late: a trilogy of all-female Shakespeare productions at the Donmar Warehouse that used the prism of the Bard’s text to explore female incarceration.
Herself focuses on the plight of Sandra, a young mother who seeks to escape a cruel housing system and violent husband that both define her life. She sets out to build her own home and from there Lloyd’s film, with an effective script from Malcolm Campbell (Shameless, What Richard Did, Ackley Bridge) and Clare Dunne (making her writing debut – and taking on the lead role), finds the hope to overcome her trauma.
As the co-writer and lead Dunne is a wonderfully grounded screen presence, quietly impactful without giving in to the potential melodrama that surrounds the subject matter. Dunne will hopefully become a presence we will be familiar with in the future. This is also a revelatory shift for Lloyd who has always exhibited promise with her previous work (the aforementioned ABBA extravaganza and The Iron Lady) but has felt hamstrung by the source materials’ shortcomings. She keeps Herself contained and intimate and finds beauty in the domestic setting. Even if there are times where the film relies upon narrative conveniences (there’s perhaps one too many kindly strangers) it is refreshing in that it takes a bleak subject matter and finds something more to say about it.
Herself can be an abrasive watch, unafraid to shy away from its subject matter with flashes to past incidents of violence against Sandra and packing several punches throughout Sandra’s journey to autonomy. But as well as compellingly drawn it feels oddly uplifting. Lloyd, Dunne and Campbell have crafted a spirited work that shows that even in a year like 2020 we must not forget that hope and our ability to overcome the hard times are what make life worth living. That is what the magic of cinema offers us.
One last aspect worth highlighting is that this is a Picturehouse Entertainment release. The distribution arm for the cinema chain, they have a record for releasing consistently compelling, interesting works. Recent releases have included the likes of Monos, Woman at War and God’s Own Country. With everything that is going on with the industry in recent months, if you can support this fabulous company (and you feel safe to go to a cinema) then give Herself a watch. Cinema is at its best when it lifts up talent and focuses on stories that would otherwise struggle to be told.