Phyllida Lloyd takes to the helm bringing life to Malcolm Campbell and Clare Dunne’s heartfelt story of trauma and intimacy by exploring the lengths to which a mother will go to protect those she holds dearest. “Herself” is an emotional rollercoaster of a film that will continuously have you pondering on what is to come next. With a great cast including Harriet Walter and co-writer Clare Dunne acting as the true lead, the film never fails to bring performers who skillfully bring their characters to life. At times, good performances can mean nothing if what the script presents is simply drivel. Fortunately, “Herself” features an effective narrative that is only ever bogged down at times by minor plot conveniences that are sorely reliant on luck. In the current landscape of films, had another writer or director utilized this subject matter, it could have been a dreadful experience. But, “Herself” escapes that space and is benefited by that choice as it feels like a breath of fresh summer air.
“Herself” tells the story of a single mother struggling with the physical and mental traumas dealt upon her by an abusive ex-husband who seeks to devastate everything she is attempting to build for her two young girls. Sandra (Clare Dunne) has lived in an abusive relationship with Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson) for some time as the pair have two little children, Emma (Ruby Rose O’Hara) and Molly (Molly McCann). By doing what she can, Sandra has hidden materials from Gary and developed code words with her daughters as she prepared for the worst. One day when these very things are exposed, Gary storms in and severely injures Sandra with no remorse. However, when a pair of unexpecting eyes witness the abuse first hand, Sandra takes the initiative and promptly removes herself and her two children from the vile household in which they resided. We follow the journey of Sandra as she navigates the complicated world to the best of her ability in the hopes of creating a new and improved life for her dearest daughters. All the while, adversarial forces attempt to lay waste to everything she works to manifest while other gracious acts of kindness are bestowed upon aiding in her cause.
It should come as no surprise, but with Clare Dunne not only penning the script for the film but also starring in it, she soars by delivering a riveting performance. Infused with such raw emotion, Dunne brings every scene to life as we witness her trials and tribulations of growth and self-discovery. Everything she delivers is amplified to a masterful level, that we as an audience can almost immediately buy into her character and her engaging connections with her children, who also do a perfect job encapsulating their characters. Co-stars Ruby Rose O’Hara and Molly McCann bring an extra sense of genuine life to the screen that is often not always seen by young performers. O’Hara and McCann balance each other well in a cute sisterhood relationship that feels as natural as can be. Both girls also fantastically reciprocate the love Dunne puts forth so much so, that at times you may forget they are even performing as everything winds up feeling organic. Harriet Walter also takes up a prominent role in the film as Peggy, the retired doctor Dunne’s character Sandra is caretaking. Walter starts the film by being an agitated character also searching for a sense of reason as age continues to battle her. However, as the narrative unfolds, Walter’s joyous transformation will speak volumes and show how one single act of charity can change a person’s life forever. It is a testament to the film’s cast as although only a small handful of characters can be considered major, even the ancillary side ones are too fully realized and have pure moments of joy that will make you smile all the way through.
“Herself” does not possess the most complex or multilayered in-depth script of all time, but it more than makes up for it by delivering a concise story from start to finish. Malcolm Campbell and Clare Dunne forge a story about the traumatic experiences of domestic abuse that does not wallow in its atrocities, but instead focuses on the beauties life has to offer just on the other side. It was rather refreshing to able to sit down and watch a film that does not take a heavy approach to conveying its message, instead the writers and director take their time conveying the ideas through subtle ways. For a portion of the film, Sandra and her two daughters find themselves living in a hotel directly under an airport. Although a minor exchange is held between the characters discussing their living situation, it is not a point of discussion that is brought up ad nauseam just to make Sandra feel worse about everything around her. Instead, a slight emotional tool is employed to generate the same kind of response. Every time we are in the hotel room, the sound of an airplane passing overheard loudly carries throughout the room. This tiny detail alone creates a genuine feeling of sadness by painting the contrast of Sandra’s ill-fated circumstances and inability to secure home with the freedoms of the more fortunate who choose where they desire to go. With no verbal mention of this conflict, the film does a genius job of displaying the crumbling weight of it all. “Herself” also tells a story that gives the audience room to breathe, but always keeps you on your toes because of its rollercoaster of a plot. Peaceful moments of love and comradery are deeply played against harsh and devastating scenes to create a film that pushes and pulls your emotions in every direction.
“Herself” is an awe-inspiring feel-good film hidden under the veneer of trauma and abuse. It tells the story of how good people with the will to succeed will always find a way to rise above the negativity no matter the circumstances. With a quality cast that bolsters the strength of the narrative every step of the way, “Herself” will engage audiences from start to finish. However, no film is perfect, as certain plot points introduced may often come about purely through chance luck. The original score of the film is also very minimal and entirely insignificant with the primary soundtrack being composed of licensed tracks that can often feel misplaced or odd when they are played. Nevertheless, these minor gripes are never enough to shatter the beautiful story the entire cast and crew assembled to brilliantly create.