Review: Herself

Directed by Phyllida Lloyd and written by Malcolm Campbell and lead actress Clare Dunne, a young mother Sandra escapes her abusive husband and fights back against a broken housing system, setting out to build her own home and in the process rebuilds her life and re-discovers herself. Also starring: Harriet Walter, Conleth Hill, Ian Lloyd Anderson, Cathy Belton, Rebecca O’Mara, Ericka Roe, Molly McCann and Ruby Rose O’Hara.

There are certain directors that immediately spring to mind when telling brutal, honest, unforgiving British stories: Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, Andrea Arnold and soon to be added is Phyllida Lloyd for this sincere portrayal of an abused mother trying to create a better life for her daughters while fighting a broken system. Double credit has to go to Dunne for co-writing the script as well as providing what will likely be one of the top performances of the year, watching her as Sandra is immediately the type of portrayal that you can imagine someone receiving a BAFTA for. There are such an impressive number of qualities to Dunne’s performance, but perhaps what stands out strongest is the way that she portrays the after effects for victims of abuse, the anxiety, the fear, the post traumatic stress, accurately showing the reality of how it doesn’t just stop when they finally leave. Though every other element is similarly strong, the relationship she creates with her children and the intense stresses she goes through to keep them afloat. She helped to write a part for herself that was no easy task, she was prepared to put herself through the ringer and executed it perfectly.

Dunne has some great support in the form of firstly Harriet Walter, a British treasure and the wit, sarcasm and compassion that she brings through in this role have a lot to add to the film. McCann and O’Hara who play her daughters do a brilliant job for such young girls, they each have a couple of particularly emotional moments testing their acting ability and they pass with top marks. There really isn’t a weak link in the ensemble, it’s such a well-chosen group of actors that they’re effortless to watch.

The way that the writing tackles this story is brutal, there’s a constant battle of hope versus fear, the former slowly building while the latter looms large throughout. The way that it progresses draws you in right away but keeps pulling at you stronger and stronger, you can palpably feel her desperation rise with each new obstacle, the intensity of the story only increases with time. It’s an impressive balance to never let that hope slip away while playing so heartbreakingly with the dire nature of the situation and only hitting viewers harder as time runs on. Similarly the way they make Sandra both a vulnerable, damaged character yet resilient wouldn’t be a strong enough word for her, her determination knows no bounds, it’s a brilliantly captured balance.

All those emotions that are brought in with the writing and acting are then amplified by the direction, particularly in the moments where Sandra is faced with her abuser and keeps herself together long enough to get out of sight then has a panic attack, the way that Lloyd changes up the style entirely to reflect that is fantastic. It’s very modern and stylish but at the same time, down to earth and fiercely sincere, including really great cinematography work that keeps that reality without making things out to be overtly grim or gritty, keeping a more accessible quality to it. The only real aspect of the film that steps off the mark is the use of pop songs, it’s an extremely disappointing experience to find yourself approaching a very satisfying scene only for it to be topped with unnecessary pop music, it entirely takes away from the emotion that it’s spent so much time building. It feels like a choice that comes out of nowhere, it’s one thing to include the music as if the characters are listening to it but to then place it on top of key scenes that carry a lot of weight is just doing itself a massive injustice.

Herself is exactly the type of thing people need right now, it’s dedicated to showing how hard life can be but never let’s go of its message that you can’t give up and there’s always hope. Clare Dunne’s performance is extraordinary, she’s utterly compelling to watch and brings to life so well the authentic emotions her character explores. Lloyd has stepped far from what we’ve known of her so far, this is on another planet compared to her previous work but it shows that she has a lot more to give and hopefully we’ll see more stories like this from her in the future. It’s brutal, heart-breaking and relentless but it’s unbelievably worth having your heart broken for the exceptional film that it is.

Verdict: ✯✯✯✯

Coming to UK & Irish Cinemas from 10 September

Reviewed as part of London Film Festival 2020

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