An abused woman finds ‘Herself’ in this cinematic parable of empowerment

Ann Hornaday

THE WASHINGTON POST – Herself joins a flotilla of films that have come our way in recent years having to do with women saying: Enough. As the Irish-set movie opens, Sandra (Clare Dunne) is dancing and playing dress-up with her two young daughters, who twirl and laugh with their mother with carefree abandon. The temperature of the room plummets when their father Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson) comes home. After shooing the girls out of the kitchen, Sandra suffers a brutal beating that may not be the first she’s endured at the hands of her husband but might be the last.

After escaping with her daughters in tow, Sandra is housed at an airport hotel outside Dublin, where the social services bureaucracy keeps her stalled and essentially homeless. While holding down two jobs – cleaning the house of a tart-tongued physician (Harriet Walter) and working at a local tavern – Sandra tries to find her way out of an increasingly hopeless and static situation, until hitting on a DIY video explaining how to build your own house.

The rest goes pretty much as planned in this sturdy but sometimes flat parable of feminist empowerment. Director Phyllida Lloyd, best known for The Iron Lady and Mamma Mia!, isn’t a particularly distinguished stylist: She shepherds Herself with assurance and workwomanlike efficiency, with most of Sandra’s setbacks being signalled as if heading down Grafton Street.

One exception is a third-act twist that feels gratuitously cruel and conveniently apropos to Lloyd’s theme of perseverance and indomitable motherly love.

As trite as Herself is in plot and emotional beats, what makes it worthwhile are the performances, which are all stellar: Dunne brings an utterly believable combination of warmth and wariness to her role as a young woman tentatively coming into her own (someone should cast her in a sisters comedy opposite Emily Mortimer post haste).

Ruby Rose O’Hara and Molly McCann are incandescent as her daughters Emma and Molly, and Walter brings her signature peppery vim to a character who deepens as the story wends its way forward.

A colourful cast of friends and friends-of-friends helps to make Herself not just a celebration of one woman’s determination, but of community – a portrait that feels like a let’s-put-on-a-show fantasy grounded in the social principles of Ken Loach. It’s a not always a convincing combination but, in Dunne’s capable hands, it’s a fetching and absorbing one.

Harriet Walter in ‘Herself.’ PHOTO: AMAZON STUDIOS
From left: Clare Dunne, Ruby Rose O’Hara and Molly McCann in ‘Herself’