It’s poetically apt and fitting that David Guetta and Sia’s Titanium is the signature track in Phyllida Lloyd’s latest film, a song about fighting against the odds, being strong and resilient. It’s the type of pop culture, zeitgeist energy that feeds into Herself’s narrative – a story about a young mother escaping domestic violence and the broken remits of society to create a haven for her two young children. And despite its occasional slips into simplistic and predictable overtures, it’s a powerfully driven piece of drama that can take anyone by surprise.
Herself is an empowering story of courage, rebuilding and healing through trauma. Director Phyllida Lloyd takes her audiences on an emotional journey that encapsulate pains and hardships of life before finding harmony and balance at its re-discovery.
It’s a feeling you wouldn’t have come to such a sweeping conclusion from its opening scene. It’s a deeply, upsetting moment where Sandra (Clare Dunne) is violently beaten by her ex-husband Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson), breaking her hand in the process. It’s a brutal and angry pill to swallow, and what follows is Lloyd at her instrumental best. In the aftermath where Sandra desperately attempts to get away, it is a constant overture of struggles, setbacks, and the endless hope of safety and a ‘roof over their head’ that is not temporary or on the streets. And in delving deep within her psychosis, Llyod captures the relentless, sensory overload of her trauma. While ‘timely’ is an overused word, but the instance alone is a painful reminder of the hidden suffering women face behind closed doors with abusive relationships and the harmful impact it has on children. Much like society, the lack of empathy or its denial only harms the cause.
Those facts play heavily into the story where somehow Sandra is seen as the criminal rather than the victim. The custody battle where her daughters have to visit their father, the perpetual gaslighting by Gary to get back together, the state of denial from Gary’s parents and Sandra’s caseworker helping her to play the societal game as ideal candidacy for a home – are just part of the turbulent cycles that Sandra faces. It’s the insensitivity of it all that Phyllida Lloyd’s film comments on, where a legal system can ask the wrong questions instead of showing empathetic concern for a mother and her daughters. It never quite reaches the heights from Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake, for example, a film that reflects on the endless social barriers for the working class and its obscene levels of injustice. But the circumstances add fuel to the fire for what Sandra is prepared to do in changing her life around.
What transpires can feel odd, strange and cynical considering what this film does. Saccharine in places, Phyllida Lloyd paints a symbolic picture of what the house represents – hope, freedom, a fresh start, and refuge from an unjust world. Taking one glimpse outside the window (or any news channel with its constant stream of bad news), a slice of feelgood where it has this fantastical idealism of life is something unexpecting. Granted there’s an abundance of fortuitous charity, timing and a copious amount of privilege at play, the film begins to dial up the montages, musical anthems, recruitment drives (including former Game of Thrones star Conleth Hill), a dose of community spirit and undercover work. And like magic, the dream is suddenly possible.
The film has good intentions mind you. Co-written by Clare Dunne and Malcolm Campbell, its heart finds the right places for joy and natural rapport with its young child actors in Molly McCann and Ruby Rose O’Hara. Sandra’s inexperience, resorting to googling her building requirements and proposed costing is the sort of charm that the film brings, making a notable joke about Grand Designs. But the script often falls into these generic pitfalls that require its audience to suspend some disbelief.
The supporting characters – the perfect tapestry of community diversity and disabilities – are given surface-level attention. They are there for the journey and the journey alone without any real insight into their life. Conleth Hill’s Aido is one of the better-developed characters on screen, showcasing his immediate reluctance to go back to building contracting and suffers from heart troubles. The same can be said about Harriet Walter’s Peggy, the financial backer of Sandra’s tale who provides her with the back garden land for her home. But that is as far as the story is willing to go, classified and filed away as a missed opportunity. Gary – your stereotypical villain – jumps in whenever there is an obstacle that needs to be thrown in, which can often lead to a contrived set of circumstances in its final third.
But what is undeniable is the commanding performance by Clare Dunne. There are plenty of reasons to root for her determination, even if towards the end it falls just short in encapsulating the full spectrum of its story that is undone by formulaic convenience. But in acknowledging that ‘home is where the heart is’, being the familiar old song that it is, it’s the type of film that knows what it is and what it wanted to achieve. And perhaps that slice of hope is not such a bad thing right now.
HERSELF screened as part of the BFI’s London Film Festival 2020. Out in UK cinemas 16th October 2020.