Herself, MA15+. 97 minutes. 3 Stars
It was, at least in part, a career in opera that saw Phillida Lloyd direct one of the most successful screen musicals ever, Mamma Mia!. She had built a terrific reputation for herself as a director of opera when she worked on the Abba stage musical back in 1999.
When Mamma Mia! was adapted to film, Lloyd remained director for the screen version. One of its many joys was watching Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan ham it up when neither actor was known for their ability to sing or dance, but they did it anyway. It was refreshing and we loved it.
A soundtrack of lovely songs also injects a spirit of release to Lloyd's latest film, a Dublin story set in the aftermath of domestic violence. Herself, small and personal but with wider significance, is about how a young single parent struggles to rebuild her life and that of her children.
The screenplay was written by Malcolm Campbell, a film editor and screenwriter, and Clare Dunne, who is also the lead actress. As a young mother with the weight of the world on her narrow shoulders, Dunne gives a fine performance. A victim who is not a victim.
With the soundtrack and nuanced central performance, Herself is more spirited than its subject matter would have you imagine. But I think some of the gallery of support characters who chip in to help Sandra tend towards caricature, and this is where the film is at its weakest.
A few moments into the film, there is a tough scene where Sandra is assaulted by her husband in their home. The domestic violence has played out before and Sandra is prepared. She has a 911 message for her elder daughter to relay to the police that she is being assaulted by Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson), and have them and the authorities intervene.
When they do it's the end of one battle for Sandra, and the beginning of new ones.
She then has to find a home for herself and the girls, while she holds down casual jobs. Cleaning for a woman who is temporarily disabled and working in a pub provide necessary supplements to her single mother's allowance. All the while, her fractured hand is a reminder of the episode that keeps running through her brain in flashback.
At the nadir of her social isolation, Sandra, daughters Emma (Ruby Rose O'Hara) and Molly (Molly McCann) appear in a sequence set in the parking lot of an apartment block where flight crew return from work. Through the roof space overhead, Sandra watches planes flying in and out of the city, while all around them airline staff are arriving home, toting their luggage and duty-frees.
We can see the pressure she is under to relent and return to Gary, now living with his parents, and give the marriage another go. Gary is insistent, but Sandra is resolved.
What's more, she has found a project, building her own home on a plot of land gifted by her client, Peggy (Harriet Walter). She will also loan her money for the build. Improbable but plausible, cranky Peggy with the walker becomes a benefactor and friend.
Sandra has to swear her daughters to secrecy about this good fortune. There won't be any pictures on Instagram, and it won't be documented for Grand Designs. It is designated "Black Widow", code for something never to be disclosed.
Constructing a house to rebuild and repair, reminded me of Life as a House, a fine film with Kevin Kline about a father and son building a house as they put their relationship together again.
Herself is however about building anew. The varied group of interesting individuals who gather around Sandra to help with the build eventually become family.
Dunne wrote her screenplay years ago. It was in response to the plight of a friend who rebuilt her shattered life by constructing an affordable, eco house for herself and her three young children.
Despite its grim subtext, Phillida Lloyd has ensured that Herself pulls itself together and carries you forward.
After working with Lloyd on Mamma Mia!, Meryl Streep was Margaret Thatcher in the director's other famous film, The Iron Lady.
Lloyd is drawn to strong women. Clare is another one. Herself is an uplifting tale about building, literally and figuratively, a new life.
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