The beauty of film comes in its ability to translate the untranslatable – emotion can be such a fickle and loose thing, where we know exactly how we’re feeling but simply cannot find the words. There’s a raw power to emotion that can overwhelm us at the best of times, making it impossible to present what you’re feeling in a concise and clear way whilst maintaining the strength of the sentiment behind it. Herself harnesses that power and channels it through the lens, creating an unforgettable powerhouse of a feature.
Written by Clare Dunne (who plays the titular role) and Malcolm Campbell (What Richard Did), we follow Sandra, a young mother who finally escapes from an abusive relationship with boyfriend Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson). We watch her struggle against the systemic failures of the housing system, and battle with anxiety and PTSD as she’s forced to keep Gary within her periphery for court-mandated visits. Finally, she decides to take matters into her own hands, building a house for herself and her children, and in the process, rebuilding herself.
Whilst Dunne never envisioned herself as playing Sandra, it’s clear that no-one else could have performed the role better. Her portrayal of Sandra as this worn-down, near-defeated mother constantly fighting to stay above the surface is as tragic as it is beautiful; there’s an immense sadness the camera simply resting on her gaze, whether it be an empty room or in her car – with a simple look, Dunne is able to transmit such emotional weight that you’re immersed in her struggle immediately. The script touches on the complex attachment that accompanies an abusive relationship – trying to unravel the disconnect between who the abuser once was, and the individual they are now, and how difficult it can be to overcome that. One of the greatest things about Dunne’s performance is this deep, understated depression that Sandra carries with her – whether it be through an infinite stare into the distance, or witnessing her body releasing a heavily-entrapped sigh, you feel exactly what she is feeling.
Although Herself is intended to be uplifting, and ultimately not “bleak social realism” as Dunne stated she tried to avoid, this film is utterly devastating and for lack of a better word, visceral. The film’s depiction of domestic violence is more frightening than many horrors, with Ian Lloyd Anderson’s Gary performing a monster of a man. When we see Anderson, somehow he’s always able to present himself as though there is a deep raged simply bubbling below the surface, desperate to explode. Every time he makes a re-appearance, there’s a violent turn in your stomach, as you realize you feel how Sandra feels in his presence. It’s a mastering of both acting and script that makes you so horribly unsettled. He is genuinely terrifying, as we witness in the opening minutes an absolutely horrific and brutal presentation of Gary’s violence against Sandra, that Lloyd and Dunne constantly come back to through the form of PTSD-induced flashbacks. There’s a cruel creativity in these flashbacks through the use of POV that place the viewer directly within Sandra’s fear and intense anxiety, as though they’re our own memories being played back to us. The depiction of domestic violence is unrelenting and nauseating – perhaps because it’s being presented so bluntly and honestly, repeating itself through visual and sonic cues, creating these moments of horror that create a similar emotion to what Sandra must be feeling.
Herself presents a myriad of enemies and obstacles to the path of Sandra, Gary merely being the most obvious and threatening one. The failings of internal systems such as the housing system are highlighted, but instead revolving around the systemic failures rather than individual failures from care workers or assigned judges. It’s an important part of Sandra’s story to explore that often is marginalized to instead focus on the clear and present threat of the abusive partner, and it’s refreshing to show the difficulty beyond leaving an abusive partner to deal with a system that is inherently flawed and built against you. Sometimes the two are even intertwined – there’s a moment where Gary accuses Sandra of a ‘breach of access’, thereby taking advantage of the antiquated system’s lack of contextualization against her, to the point where from a legal standpoint, Sandra appears to be the villain, not Gary.
Without giving away any specific details, the conclusion of Herself will stay with me for days. It is a film that can uplift you to magnificent heights through the heart-warming support network built around Sandra, emphasizing Irish doctrines of community, but it’s also a film that can leave you paralyzed with a grief and a gut-wrenching sadness that is almost entirely unexpected. Lloyd and Dunne are aware of the predictability and syrupy moments of heartwarming goodness, and so they take measures to ensure that despite this being a film of empowerment and rebuilding oneself, reality is there waiting to shatter you like a stone through a window. The final moments have such a melancholic energy to them that you feel as though you may burst into tears, but is it out of sadness, anger or simply exhaustion? Herself is an incredibly painful and difficult watch, to witness a young mother being pushed back down every single time she tries to get back up, particularly as someone who was raised by a single mother – much of the film was spent in a deep, reserved sadness. While it couldn’t be said that Herself is an enjoyable film per-say, it’s an incredibly powerful and important feature that should be respected for its complexity and the deep, rich emotions that runs through its cinematic lens.
Herself opens in UK and Irish cinemas October 16th.