BFI London Film Festival: Herself

Directed by Phyllida Lloyd
Starring Clare Dunne, Harriet Walter and Conleth Hill

by Laura Patricia Jones

Big screen Mamma Mia! director Phyllida Lloyd’s intimate Irish festival flick is in short a story of a down-trodden woman who builds a house. But digging deeper it’s more than that; a portrayal of mental and physical abuse, a failed social system and a mother’s courage are all explored in this ‘I Daniel Blake’ style setting.

The film begins closed in on a cute and familiar family scene; Sandra (Clare Dunn) is with her young daughters as they play with make–up and dance to Sia’s Chandelier. Swiftly the scene takes a macabre turn as her husband Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson) returns from work, orders the kids to go out in the garden as he brutally attacks Sandra. Moments previously, Sandra utters a code word to her eldest daughter who takes a toy box with a hidden message in it to the nearest shop to alert someone to call the police for help. From there we watch Sandra and the girls reside in an airport hotel under women’s aid and her jumping from one bad shift at work to the next.

Sandra works out that the money the system is paying out to put them up in hotels is more than it would cost for her to build her own house so confronts them with her proposition to no avail. All until Peggy (Harriet Walter), the lady she cleans for, pulls the fairy godmother card and offers up the generous plot of land in the back garden for her to build her home. However, this is no fairytale story and through Sandra, Lloyd paints a portrait of economic anxiety, domestic abuse and a mother’s struggle. A strong performance is given by Dunn as the wounds of her past feel practically etched to her face.

There are moments of cliché and mawkish sentiment in the script that pushed me away at times. But Dunn’s performance continued to bring me back and just as I began to wonder where it was all going, a (not entirely unpredictable) plot twist brings deserved tears. Maybe that was just me, but the believable performances combined with albeit clichéd Cranberries sound track gave the film the lift it needed.

Herself definitely has something to say and represents a growing number of families failed by a system. The sad reality being, they can’t all go out and build their own houses to combat the problem. However, Lloyd is successful in giving a voice to all the “Sandras” out there and the film certainly has some heartwarming and moving moments of note.


Leave a Reply