Phyllida Lloyd takes a stealth approach to building its poignancy, drawing her audience in with a gentle hand before swinging the lens back on them
à toi: Phyllida Lloyd. Mettant en vedette: Clare Dunne, Harriet Walter, Conleth Hill. 15, 98 minutes.
Hope is a flimsy thing. It’s the kite dancing at the end of its string, the firefly about to be extinguished by the coming of dawn. Et, dans Herself, Phyllida Lloyd’s drama about a woman rediscovering who she is outside of the boundaries of an abusive marriage, hope is the breath of life that comes as quickly as it goes. Lloyd, whose feature debut Mamma Mia! was the cinematic embodiment of being three glasses deep into a bottle of Prosecco, has clearly never shied away from the comforts of a feel-good story. Herself even comes with its own musical montages – including one set to that old, trusty empowerment ballad, “Titanium”.
Mais, behind all that rousing sentiment, Herself hides the harsh, necessary truth of the world. Lloyd takes a stealth approach to building its poignancy, drawing her audience in with a gentle hand before swinging the lens back on them. It’s the rare narrative that doesn’t frame the physical escape from abuse as the end of the story; Sandra (Clare Dunne) may be separated from her ex (Ian Lloyd Anderson), but she’s not yet free of his emotional violence. Week after week, she drops off their two daughters at his home, as part of their shared custody. She stomachs the flashbacks that ring between her ears every time he talks about them reuniting, the panic attacks while driving back. The film’s script, written by Dunne and Malcolm Campbell, not only acknowledges that poisonous, daily toll, but the conflicted feelings that it can bring up – Sandra admits, a l'heure, that a part of her still misses him.
There’s no chance to move on, so life now becomes an earthly purgatory. The waiting list for homes in the Dublin area is so long that queues on viewing days wrap around the block. The state-mandated hotel she’s been put up in won’t even let her use the front door, as if she were some kind of shameful secret. And when she stumbles across the blueprints for a self-build home that would cost just over what the state already pays each year to keep her stagnation going, social services won’t even let her plead her case.
As the phrase goes, the cruelty is the point. Even while Herself takes the rosier path, as Sandra’s employer (an excellent Harriet Walter) rallies the community and provides both the land and the money necessary to start construction work, it never loses its political edge. Dunne and Campbell’s script continues to rage against the system that would place victims in front of their abusers, in a court of law, and ask them why they didn’t leave sooner. And Dunne herself is incredible in the way she funnels that bristling sense of injustice into her performance, as Sandra’s soft, pain-flecked voice rises and falls with the strength of her conviction. There are days when everything feels like an imposition, like she’s testing her luck. At other times, a resilience will rise up and take hold. Herself is smart in the way it balances the importance of individual charity and the need for wider reform – one provides the hope, the other provides the answers.