Herself (2020) BFI LFF Review

Herself (2020) BFI LFF Review

Herself (2020)
Phyllida Lloyd
Screenwriter: Clare Dunne, Malcolm Campbell
Starring: Clare Dunne, Harriet Walter, Conleth Hill

“You can’t be dead! We need you for chips!”

Having already gained itself an unbeatable score of 100% on Rotten Tomatoes after its premiere at Sundance Film Festival back in January 2020, Herself will resonate with audiences worldwide as a story of sheer persistence told through the eyes of a female director, a perspective that this film hugely benefits from. 

Clare Dunne (whose previous work includes performances from The National Theatre and Donmar Warehouse) leads the cast spectacularly as abuse victim Sandra who, after leaving her husband and seeking governmental help, finds herself homeless with two children to support. She juggles two jobs whilst still raising her daughters and ensuring they attend their weekly visits with their father. As time progresses, Sandra’s youngest daughter Molly refuses to attend these visits, which leads Sandra to be served with a court hearing. Whilst dealing with all of these tribulations, Sandra is forced to come up with a housing solution on her own due to the lack of support from her local government, and after being told she could be on the housing waiting list for another 3 years-plus, she discovers an affordable way to build herself a house, her wealthy employer Peggy (Harriet Walter – Atonement, Sense and Sensibility) offering her the land she needs to make her dream come true. Sandra meets pitfalls along the way, but her outstanding passion and need to provide a better life for her family pushes her to achieve what could have initially been considered unachievable. 

Jam-packed with powerful performances by leading women, Herself is a beautiful story of determination and strength set in a country (Ireland) that struggles to support those who need it most. With a clear look at the housing crisis in Dublin in particular, and a motivation to shed light on the struggle for abuse victims, the film – intricately directed by Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia!, The Iron Lady) – opens your eyes to how quickly life can turn around.

It is Lloyd’s decision to have the cast be mostly female that is the film’s most enticing aspect. Lead actor and co-screenwriter Clare Dunne is given room to forge an intimate on-screen chemistry with her co-star Harriet Walter, whose character Peggy provides a strong support structure for Dunne’s Sandra, the pair forging a beautiful female connection. It is a vision of strength and of womanhood, and a message that when women work together they can achieve anything.

This feminist edge is apparent all the way through, from the intricacies of performance to the inspiration behind the film’s title, and that’s thanks in large part to the beautiful screenplay crafted by Dunne and her co-writer Malcolm Campbell (What Richard Did). Together, the screenwriting duo built characters that both achieve on their own and grow with the people around them, avoiding some of the cliches of the genre and instead offering both an inspirational tale of one woman finding her peace through hard work and determination, and an educating tale on the power of motherhood.

There’s a true beauty in art that showcases the power of people and what can be achieved when we come together, a message that is arguably more important than ever in 2020. Herself is at times uplifting and at times heartbreaking, but it is from start to finish unmissable.


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