A mother rebuilds her life after escaping her abusive husband in Phyllida Lloyd’s urgent drama.
Phyllida Lloyd’s latest feature feels smaller than her previous two, Mamma Mia! and The Iron Lady, both of which starred Meryl Streep alongside an ensemble of familiar faces. In Herself, the cast is comprised of largely unknown performers, led by fearless co-writer Clare Dunne as the central character, Sandra. It might also just be Lloyd’s finest work to date, an intimate portrayal of one woman’s struggle to improve life for herself and her young children after fleeing an abusive husband.
Forced into temporary accommodation in an airport hotel (where the family are forbidden from using the guest entrance for fear their appearance might startle the paying guests), Sandra works two jobs to support daughters Emma and Molly, all the while undermined by her estranged husband Gary, who attempts to gaslight her into returning to him. Despairing of her situation, Sandra embarks on the unconventional journey to build her own “tiny home” from scratch, aided by her generous employer Peggy (Harriet Walter) and a group of supportive friends and well-wishers.
There are shades of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh here, albeit without any trace of melodrama. Dunne approaches Sandra’s story from a matter-of-fact point of view, showing how for many victims of abuse, reflection is a luxury they simply can not afford, not to mention how the systems put in place to protect such people often fail them. Sandra is forced to drop her daughters off at her ex-husband’s home every weekend per their custody agreement, regardless of how the kids themselves feel about it.
The absurdity of Sandra’s situation is hard to fathom, but it’s daily life for millions of women across the world who are forced to share close quarters with their abusers. Lloyd and Dunne succeed in giving a voice to the voiceless, while also offering a nuanced portrait of a woman rediscovering herself after years of living in fear. Crucially, neither Sandra or her children are defined merely by their circumstances or experiences.
So many films are branded ‘urgent’ nowadays, but in the case of Herself the term really does feel apt. Reform of women’s rights with a view to ensuring their protection from violence is essential; Lloyd’s film highlights this while managing to remain full of love and warmth. For all the darkness and pain Sandra lives through, there’s light too, and the found family that is created out of trauma give her something she hasn’t felt in a long time: hope.
Published 26 Jan 2020
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