There are many films that touch on women’s suffering. And, what becomes clear after a while is that there is a fine line between presenting a tragic situation and exploiting it. Phyllida Lloyd’s (Mamma Mia, The Iron Lady) latest film presents a story about a woman who exits a toxic relationship after being emotionally and psychologically abused. It isn’t an easy story to tell, but I was relieved to see that Herself does a fantastic job walking that fine line by presenting a story with great cathartic moments and character growth (it is often female filmmakers that achieve this).
The story follows Sandra (Clare Dunne) who decides to separate from her husband Gary after suffering from emotional and physical abuse in multiple instances. The film often reminds us of how unfair the legal system can be when it comes to women. While Sandra is able to keep her children with her after separating from Gary, she is always inches away from losing them. Society expects a grieving mother to maintain a job, take care of the children, and be a perfect parent. Sandra’s main concern is that cannot seem to find a permanent home due to the multiple bureaucratic processes involved in requesting help from the government. Hence she decides to take it into her own hands and build her own home.
Herself juxtaposes the tragic aspects of life with beautiful ones. Through her previous relationships in life, Sandra finds people that decide to help her build her home. Much more than just wallowing in misery, the film is determined to confront issues in our legal system and in our society that constraint and punish women in this position. Phyllida Lloyd’s nuanced but controlled direction serves the story well by balancing the dramatic elements with cathartic (and even comedic) ones. And it is due to Clare Dunne’s stellar performance that the film works so well.
Even though this might seem like a story that we have all seen before, Herself has enough unique elements to differentiate itself. I can see different (longer, less focused) versions of this movie that would seem boresome. I can gladly say that Herself is not only an ultimately satisfying movie but also one that is worth your time.
Director: Phyllida Lloyd
Writer: Malcolm Campbell, Clare Dunne