There aren’t any films out there quite like Herself. It’s both tender and visceral, heart-breaking and uplifting, and is one of the best films to come out of this year’s London Film Festival so far.
The concept of Herself is a particularly traumatic one, and director Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia!, The Iron Lady) doesn’t shy away from the precarious position that main character Sandra (an astonishing Clare Dunne, who also co-wrote the script) films herself in. A recently-divorced single mother of two just out of an abusive relationship, Sandra is an incredibly sympathetic character: clearly exhausted and at the end of her tether.
Dunne’s is a touching performance, both emotional yet pessimistic, and having her play the character she wrote means the connection between them is so tightly-woven, with the many emotional beats landing perfectly. Most notable of all is a truly incredible courtroom monologue as Sandra goes up against her abusive ex-husband Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson, conveying sheer venom), as she slanders the justice system for choosing abuser over victim, and truly pours her heart out. It’s an incredibly vulnerable and honest moment that encapsulates Herself’s heart-rending journey, and cements Dunne as one to watch for the upcoming awards season.
Yet Herself truly soars when we see something totally unexpected: the world giving back to Sandra after having so much taken from her. Her main aspiration – to build a house and carve out a future for her children – both conveys the physical means of safety and sanctuary within one’s own home, but the metaphorical safety of independence, solace, and a life without relying on others to help her get by.
The film’s emotional swells often hit their crescendo as her small property is built, out of a client’s back garden. Sandra is such an expertly crafted character that seeing her finally succeed is incredibly uplifting, with some powerful, if slightly cliché, musical choices providing the bubbly atmosphere that truly makes the heart tingle. For all the scenes where we see how hard single motherhood is, and how devastating Sandra’s life has been, witnessing this grassroots upheaval of her own life is incredibly gratifying.
It’s testament to the inch-perfect tone that Lloyd creates here that each side of the emotional spectrum – both happy and sad moments – land perfectly, and without going into specifics, there’s enough of each to get some tears from both sides. From scenes of community – as Sandra bonds with the group who help her build the house, who admittedly could’ve been fleshed out more – to scenes of sheer anguish, Herself‘s script is more precise and sharp than anything else you’ll see this year.
Building is an incredibly precise and laborious task. It takes countless people, hundreds of hours, and endless toil to produce something truly life-changing and transformative, and the weight of this transformation is never felt more than in Herself. It’s so touching and joyous, but is also harrowing, and often truly devastating. There simply isn’t anything else like it – the best British film of the year so far.