Sandra’s husband Gary apparently has such a history and pattern of abuse that she has an emergency protocol in place with her young daughters; the eldest (who is maybe 8), takes off for the nearest corner store with a tool box. Inside is a card instructing the shopkeeper to call the cops as her life is in danger. Meanwhile, the youngest daughter cowers in the backyard, watching her mother get stomped on.
This, apparently, is the last straw. She leaves, but working several jobs still leaves her short at the end of the month, and the three of them are living in a hotel because Dublin is apparently short on public housing. Fed up with welfare’s shortcomings, and with Gary still lurking around, asking for another chance, Sandra (Clare Dunne) takes things into her own hands. With a generous land donation, she prints off DIY instructions from the internet and prepares to build a small home for herself. It’s an unsubtle metaphor for the kind of rebuilding her life needs and deserves generally, and the more she opens up and asks for help, the easier it becomes and the fuller her life is. Abused women are often isolated, which is part of what makes it so hard to leave. Building a life is about more than just pouring concrete and laying floors; it’s about trusting people again and creating your own safe space.
Unfortunately, the abuse doesn’t always stop just because the woman leaves, especially when there are kids involved. She has two adorable little souls tying her to a man she’d rather never see again, and even the court will keep forcing them together.
Phyllida Lloyd’s Herself is perhaps trite, but sensitively told, allowing the power of the performances to take centre stage, and Clare Dunne proves herself worthy of the confidence, never over-reaching the emotional beats. Herself may be a difficult watch at times, but it’s also gratifying; Sandra has a voice, and Lloyd gives her a beautiful cinematic platform from which to use it. She aims a few choice words at an uncaring bureaucracy that deserve cheers from a jaded audience. There are no easy breaks in Sandra’s life, but Dunne allows her empathy and grace, which are more important anyway.