19 June 2024

BFI London Film Festival 2020 Review – Herself (2020)

I think we can all agree that many of the processes and support systems in place in the UK and Eire are broken. If 2020 has shown us anything is that, as long as the rich get richer and the poor get demonstrably poorer, all is right with the country that prides itself on, ahem, common sense. Universal credit, income support, jobseekers allowance, minimum wage, all systems that are some of the worst in Europe (not that matters anymore), and local councils overflowing with people with genuine concerns that are being sent to the bottom of the pile.

One of the biggest groups affected by such flaws in the system is both single parents and victims of domestic abuse, the subject of Phyllida Lloyd’s outstanding drama co-written by star Clare Dunne. She plays Sandra, a young mother in Dublin to two daughters who have been spat out by the system and is desperate to make a fresh break and provide her children a safe, happy home life, something none have had for a long time. Her ex-husband Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson) won’t let her go without a fight and struggling to make ends meet with multiple jobs – bar lady and cleaner amongst them – she focuses all her energy on one thing: building her own home.

There’s no hiding from the story here. This is about domestic abuse and, from the off, Dunne and co-writer Malcolm Campbell want to put us in the midst of the worst place imaginable, in the room with Sandra as her husband returns, knowing what is to follow. Lloyd, swapping her Mamma Mia escapades for something much more grounded, fuels the film by keeping things simple, her camera moving with a quiet purpose without anything showy and allowing the raw edges to be seen and felt.

But there is solace to be found and what separates the film from others of similar ilks is the balance between the dark and the light, between hope and despair, beautifully anchored by Dunne’s sensational central turn that imbues it with the same spirit and empowerment as her character shows. Add to the mix two brilliant supporting turns from Conleth Hill as the builder entrusted with making Sandra’s dreams come true and the always wonderful Harriet Walter, the mix is superbly balanced.

While it isn’t the most comfortable watch across its runtime, it isn’t supposed to be, instead of showing all the aspects of these issues with the State and the pains these people go through to permanently escape their anguish and their frustrations. Beautifully told with compassion, empathy, and humour – as life is – Herself is a real triumph and deserves the attention of many more than will get to see it.


Drama | Ireland, 2020 | 15 | BFI London Film Festival | 8th-10th October 2020 | Picturehouse Entertainment | Dir.Phyllida Lloyd | Clare Dunne, Harriet Walter, Conleth Hill

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