Herself (4 stars)

Herself

LFF 2020: Phyllida Lloyd steers this hopeful story of a mother building a better future for her kids

A home of their own is the modest but seemingly impossible dream of a young, hard-up Irish family in this incredibly touching story of doing it yourself. It follows a mother and her two young children who are fleeing domestic violence and holed up in a hotel for the foreseeable, being distressingly low on the council housing list. With its social realist subject matter, the third film from Phyllida Lloyd certainly feels like a departure for the director of Mamma Mia! and The Iron Lady.

When we first meet Sandra (Clare Dunne, who wrote the film's screenplay with Malcom Campbell) she's singing her heart out with her kids in the kitchen, as Sia's 'Chandelier' blares in the background. The exuberant loveliness of the scene is shattered the moment her husband Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson) walks through the door, clearly with a bone to pick. Sandra is so terrified she sets her eldest off running to get help; she knows exactly what's coming. The film picks up after Sandra has left Gary; with no prospect of space or stability for her children any time soon, she resolves to build a house herself, after finding a budget option on the internet.

Acclaimed theatrical actress Dunne is deeply affecting as she beautifully communicates Sandra's daily struggle: the stress she continually shoulders; how each encounter with her ex, who still inexplicably has access to the kids, brings the trauma flooding back. She's staunchly supported by class act Harriet Walter as the doctor that Sandra (like her mother before her) cleans for, a woman who aids her immeasurably when push comes to shove, and the fantastic Conleth Hill features as a begrudgingly helpful builder.

Small of budget and huge of heart, thanks to its resilient protagonist, sense of community spirit and predominant faith in human decency, Herself rises above the potentially grim nature of the material. The assistance of a wealthy benefactor is a little pie-in-the-sky, and those with an aversion to uplifting pop music may have to plug their ears during a few key scenes. However, Lloyd gets the balance about right – inserting hope and cheer in amongst the more spirit-crushing moments, and being under no illusions either about the threat Sandra's husband continues to pose, as she shows how happy endings are desperately hard to come by.

Screening on Thu 8 (including via BFI Player), Fri 9 and Sat 10 Oct, as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2020. General release TBC.

Herself

  • 4 stars
  • 2020
  • 1h 37min
  • Directed by: Phyllida Lloyd
  • Cast: Harriet Walter, Conleth Hill, Cathy Belton

Phyllida Lloyd reunites with her all-female Shakespeare collaborators, Clare Dunne and Harriet Walter, for a stirring drama about a woman who refuses to be broken.

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