Playing in theaters and streaming on Amazon Prime is the new drama from director Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia!, The Iron Lady) entitled Herself. The film was co-written by and stars Clare Dunne (Spider-Man: Far From Home) as a mother who leaves her abusive husband (Ian Lloyd Anderson) and ends up building her own house in her employer’s (Harriet Walter) backyard. In addition to Dunne, Walter, and Anderson, the cast also includes Conleth Hill (Game of Thrones), Cathy Belton (Philomena), Rebecca O’Mara (Thomas & Friends), and young actresses Molly McCann and Ruby Rose O’Hara. The result is a simple but heart-warming drama about a woman trying to survive and the strong relationships she builds along the way, with excellent performances from Dunne and Walter.
The movie tells the story of Sandra (Dunne), a mother of two, who feared her abusive husband (Anderson), leaves him with their children. With nowhere to live, her employer, Peggy (Harriet Walter), agrees to give Sandra land in her backyard to build her own house. With no construction experience and very little money, Sandra sets out to build a home for her kids with the local community’s help and some new friends. The experience brings her closer to her two daughters, as well as Peggy, but Sandra’s happiness is threatened when her ex-husband takes her to court to battle for custody of their children. Now, to protect herself and her family, and along with Peggy’s love and support, Sandra must prepare to fight for herself and her children in court.
Herself is a small but powerful film that doesn’t reinvent the wheel but is emotionally satisfying. The basic story, by Dunne and Malcolm Campbell, isn’t exactly original. Still, it adds some excellent sub-plots and relationships, including the community’s idea of helping Sandra build her house and her growing relationship with Peggy. In fact, that relationship, and the performances from the two lead actresses, is really what makes the film work. Throughout the film, Peggy and Sandra’s relationship grows from employer and employee to equals and friends. You really get the idea that Peggy respects Sandra for everything she’s gone through and recognizes a hidden strength in her that Sandra is not even aware of herself. The community really coming together to help Sandra build her house is also a heartwarming aspect of the movie, with great characters like a cranky handyman (Conleth Hill) and his son, and a ditzy waitress that become invested in Sandra’s life.
As I understand it, the script was developed by Dunne in a theater group that she belongs to, along with Lloyd and Walter. That stage play quality is apparent while watching the movie, with several talky, one location scenes, but Lloyd’s experience as a filmmaker helps to elevate the material, along with the lovely performances from the two leads. After directing such successful films as Mama Mia! and The Iron Lady, Lloyd is an expert with the camera and keeps it moving while also giving the actors space to work. She also establishes a nice contrast between the house building scenes that are bubbly and uplifting, the spousal abuse scenes that are understandably disturbing, and the courtroom scenes that feel cold and static. In addition to getting terrific performances from the overall cast, Lloyd also deserves credit for getting strong performances from young actresses Molly McCann and Ruby Rose O’Hara, who handle the difficult subject material well.
But in the end, it’s the relationship between Sandra and Peggy, and the performances of Clare Dunne and Harriet Walter, respectively, that makes the film worth watching. Dunn portrays the pain and fear of an abused wife well, gaining sympathy and admiration from the audience throughout her performance. Her desperation to save her children and provide a safe and happy home for them is very believable, as is the relationship she creates with Peggy. For her part, Walter is excellent as Peggy, and if I had one criticism for the script, it would be that I wish we could have learned more about her backstory. But, while Peggy’s own family story is not overtly revealed in the screenplay, it does come through in Walter’s performance. We get the idea that she is cold and somewhat cut off from her own emotions, making it even more powerful when she admits her admiration for Sandra’s inner strength. The relationship between the two characters, their ultimate respect and love for each other, and Dunne and Walter’s performances is the true emotional strength of the film.
Herself may not be based on an incredibly original concept, but it is a lovely and emotionally resonating movie that features strong performances and a wonderful female friendship at its core.