Review: ‘Herself,’ starring Clare Dunne, Harriet Walter, Conleth Hill, Ian Lloyd Anderson, Ruby Rose O’Hara and Molly McCann

January 7, 2021

by Carla Hay

Clare Dunne, Ruby Rose O’Hara and Molly McCann in “Herself” (Photo by Pat Redmond/Amazon Studios)

“Herself”

Directed by Phyllida Lloyd

Culture Representation: Taking place in Dublin, the drama “Herself” features a predominantly white cast (with a few black people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A single mother, who has broken up with her abusive ex, decides to build her own house, but she has to hide these activities from the government’s social services department that is handling her case.

Culture Audience: “Herself” will appeal primarily to people interested in emotionally realistic dramas about women who rebuild their lives after a traumatic breakup.

Clare Dunne, Molly McCann and Ian Lloyd Anderson in “Herself” (Photo by Pat Redmond/Amazon Studios)

The concept of a woman who tries to move on from a toxic relationship has been the plot of too many movies to count. However, the compelling drama “Herself” (directed by Phyllida Lloyd) truly has something unique to offer: It’s a story of a single mother who metaphorically and literally rebuilds her life by deciding she’s going to build a house where she and her two underage daughters will live. The movie (which was filmed on location in Dublin) has some moments that are a bit predictable, but there are other parts of the story that admirably avoid clichés. Thanks to skillful direction and impressive performances from the cast members, “Herself” is a cut above the typical “single mother trying to make it on her own” movie that’s become a subgenre of a lot of female-oriented entertainment.

Clare Dunn, who co-wrote the “Herself” screenplay with Malcolm Campbell, stars in the movie as Sandra Kelly, a loving and devoted single mother to two daughters: sassy and inquisitive Emma (played by Ruby Rose O’Hara), who’s about 6 or 7 years old, and sweet-natured and friendly Molly (played by Molly McCann), who’s about 4 or 5 years old.

The movie opens with a scene of all three of them seemingly in domestic bliss in their house’s kitchen, where Emma and Molly are applying makeup to their mother’s face. Sandra explains to her daughters that the birthmark below her left eye (the birthmark looks like a bruise) is God’s way of marking her uniqueness. And then, Sandra and her daughters dance and sing in the kitchen while Sia’s “Chandelier” is playing in the background.

Suddenly, Emma’s and Molly’s father Gary Mullen (played by Ian Lloyd Anderson) comes home. Molly and Emma run to him and eagerly greet him. Gary seems happy to see them too, but he’s not happy to see Sandra, who is his live-in girlfriend. Gary tells Emma and Molly to step outside for a moment because he wants to talk to their mother. And that’s when things get ugly.

Sandra senses that all hell is about to break loose when Gary waves some paperwork and cash and angrily tells Sandra that he found out she’s going to leave him. Before Emma leaves the room to go outside, Sandra frantically whispers to Emma to do something that was a pre-arranged emergency plan. Emma runs to a playhouse in the backyard (where Molly is hiding), grabs a lunchbox, and runs to a nearby convenience store.

When Emma arrives at the store, she opens the lunchbox to show it to the store clerk. Inside the lunchbox is a written message that says: “Call 999. My life is in danger. Sandra Kelly. 14 Hazelwood Road.”

Back at the house, Gary has begun viciously assaulting Sandra. He throws her to the ground and starts punching her and grabbing her hair. And then, he stomps hard on her left hand while she cries out in agony.

The next scene shows Sandra, Emma and Molly temporarily moving into a motel. Sandra has left Gary for good, and it’s later revealed that she had him arrested for domestic violence. Sandra has been granted full custody of the children, but Gary (who works in construction) has visitation rights. Gary is currently living at home with his parents Michael (played by Lorcan Cranitch) and Tina (played by Tina Kellegher) because he doesn’t get enough steady work in construction to be able to afford his own place.

Because this case involves family court and because Sandra doesn’t have enough money to rent her own place, Sandra has to apply for council housing. She’s assigned to a sympathetic social worker named Jo (played by Cathy Belton), who is very willing to help her. Sandra has two jobs (she works as a restaurant/pub waitress and as a housecleaner), but she doesn’t make enough money at both jobs to be able to pay her bills without government assistance.

Sandra’s messy breakup from Gary, as well as her housing issues, aren’t the only problems that Sandra is dealing with right now. When Gary stomped on her left hand, it left nerve damage that might be permanent. And considering that Sandra works in jobs where she needs the use of both hands, she’s concerned about how her injury might affect her livelihood. Emotionally, Sandra is also having a rough time because she’s grieving over her beloved widowed mother, who died six months ago.

Sandra’s mother was the housecleaner for a retired medical doctor named Peggy (played by Harriet Walter), a frequently stern and moody widow who lives alone. When Sandra’s mother died, Sandra inherited the housecleaner job. In the movie’s early scenes with Peggy and Sandra, it’s shown that Peggy is a demanding and very cranky boss, whose bad temper seems to be exacerbated because she’s recovering from hip surgery. When Sandra tries to help Peggy (who uses a walker) physically move about the house, Peggy snaps at her and says she doesn’t like to be treated as if she’s old.

One day, while reading a storybook to her kids about someone who builds a house, Sandra gets curious about what it would take to get a low-cost home built. When she’s at Peggy’s house, Sandra secretly uses Peggy’s laptop computer to look up the information. Sandra finds online videos of a do-it-yourself home building expert, who describes how to build a low-cost house. The videos inspire Sandra, but without owning any land to build a home, she thinks it’s an unattainable dream for her.

However, Peggy finds out about Sandra’s online searches and surprises Sandra by telling her that Sandra can use Peggy’s spacious backyard as the place to build her home. Sandra, who is the type of person who is too proud to look for pity or accept “handouts” from people she knows, initially refuses the offer because she doesn’t want to be thought of as a charity case. She’s also hesitant because Sandra already applied for council housing. Building her own house would forfeit that application.

Sandra asks Peggy why she is suddenly being so generous to her. Peggy confides in Sandra that Sandra’s mother was more than an employee; she was also a very good friend who got Peggy through some tough times. This revelation is why Sandra changes her mind to accept Peggy’s offer, because Sandra now knows that in order to honor her deceased mother, she should start thinking of Peggy as a friend too. This housing agreement gradually thaws Peggy’s cold attitude toward Sandra, and they eventually grow to like and respect each other.

Peggy’s adult daughter Grainne (played by Rebecca O’Mara) is very skeptical of this housing arrangement, because she doesn’t think the land should be given so freely to someone whom Peggy barely knows. But Peggy impatiently brushes away those concerns and says she has a right to do what she wants with the land that she owns. Peggy makes it clear that she’s determined to help Sandra fulfill her dream of building her own home, which Peggy offers to fund as a loan.

With donated land and enough money to buy building materials, Sandra’s next step is to research what she can do on her budget. She goes to a hardware store to get price estimates and ask questions. Sandra doesn’t get much help from the store clerk, but she meets someone at the store named Aidan “Aido” Deveney, a no-nonsense, middle-aged man who owns his own construction and civil engineering company. It’s not a big company, but Aido has the experience that Sandra needs for this project.

Sandra asks for Aido’s help to build the house, but he declines for three reasons: (1) He says that he rarely does contract work; (2) Sandra wouldn’t be able to afford him if he did; and (3) He’s been having recent heart problems. Sandra doesn’t have the budget to afford a team of construction workers, and Aido warns her that it will be difficult for her to find people who will build the house for little or no payment. Sandra plans to do a lot of the hands-on construction work, but obviously she can’t do it alone.

Despite getting rejected by Aido when she initially asks for his help, Sandra is persistent and won’t take no for an answer. She has a hunch that Aido might know Gary and might know what an awful person Gary is. When she tells Aido that Gary Mullen is her ex and that she’s in desperate need of a home for her and her daughters, Aido seems to understand why Sandra might need the help that she’s requesting.

And so, Aido eventually agrees to do the contract job for less than his usual salary. Aido’s young adult son Francis (played by Daniel Ryan), who happens to have Down syndrome, works with Aido and gives Sandra an old pair of construction work shoes that she ends up wearing during the build. The close-ups of Sandra putting on the shoes are a little heavy-handed in showing how the shoes are a metaphor for her stepping outside her comfort zone and trying something that she’s never done before.

Some of “Herself” is a little corny, but the movie is so earnest in its intentions that it’s easy to forgive these minor flaws. For example, on the day that Aido and Sandra break ground on the construction site, Aido hands Sandra a shovel and says, “We’ll let herself do the honors.” (It’s at this point that viewers know this line is the inspiration for the movie’s title.)

Later in the movie, during another teamwork construction scene that’s supposed to be inspirational, the dance-pop hit “Titanium” (by David Guetta featuring Sia) is turned up to full volume on the movie’s soundtrack. The song’s chorus is “You shoot me down, but I won’t fall. I am titanium.” It’s an obvious anthem reflecting Sandra’s gradual self-empowerment.

It should come as no surprise that the construction of the house doesn’t always go smoothly. Sandra only has time to work on the house on weekends, which makes the process slower. Aido gets frustrated and threatens to quit unless Sandra can find more people to work on the house.

As luck would have it, Sandra has a waitress co-worker named Amy (played by Ericka Roe), who lives in a self-described “squat” with several people. Amy recruits three of her squat mates to help with the construction: Dariusz (played by Dmitry Vinokurov), a tall and muscular guy who has experience as a construction worker; Yewande (played by Mabel Chah), an outgoing and friendly woman; and Tomo (played by Aaron Lockhart), a jokester who sometimes likes to goof off on the job, much to the annoyance of construction boss Aido.

Sandra also asks for help from a single mother named Rosa (played by Anita Petry), whose daughter Miriam is a friend of Emma and Molly. Rosa politely declines because she’s intimidated by the thought of doing construction work. But what do you know, Sandra finds out that Rosa changed her mind when Rosa just happens to show up on the same day as Amy’s friends. Stranger things have happened in real life, so viewers will have to suspend disbelief at this lucky coincidence that Sandra gets an instantly expanded construction crew on the same day.

Before construction begins, Sandra tells her daughters Emma and Molly that building the house has to be a secret until the house is finished. Sandra knows she could get in trouble for housing fraud because she applied for council housing and claimed she had no other housing options. Sandra also doesn’t want Gary to know about the house’s construction for the same reasons.

While all of this is going on, Gary tries to get back together with Sandra. He tells her that he’s in counseling and that he’ll never abuse her again. He also tries to make her feel guilty by reminding her of happier times and telling her that she’s making a mistake by breaking up their family. These are typical tactics used by abusers, and it’s why many abused people in toxic relationships find it difficult to leave.

A big problem occurs in the visitation arrangement with Gary. Molly becomes increasingly upset at being told that she has to visit with her father. In one incident, Molly locks herself in a closet in an attempt to get out of the visitation. And eventually, Molly refuses to get out of the car when Sandra takes Molly and Emmy to visit Gary. Molly cries and seems afraid of Gary, but she won’t tell Sandra why. Meanwhile, Emma still has a loving relationship with her father and doesn’t seem afraid of him.

Sandra hates to see Molly get so emotionally distressed. And so, over a period of time, Sandra lies to Gary and uses an excuse that Molly is sick, in order to get Molly out of visiting with Gary. But after Molly misses seven or eight visitations, Gary gets suspicious, and a series of events leads him to file a breach of access petition and ask for full custody of Molly and Emma. (This custody battle isn’t spoiler information, since it’s in the movie’s trailer.) It’s eventually revealed why Molly is afraid of her father.

“Herself” accurately shows the gray areas of abusive relationships that explain why abused partners often go back to their abusers. While Gary tries to win back Sandra, she has doubts about whether or not she made the right decision to leave him. He has a charming side, and she knows that her financial situation would be less difficult if she moved back in with Gary. And she still has feelings for him, but she is unsure if he’s really changed his abusive ways.

Like many abused love partners, Sandra has to decide if the person she fell in love with is redeemable and will really stop being abusive, or if the person she fell in love with is gone forever and will eventually become abusive again if they get back together. She admits this confusion when she confides in Peggy over her mixed feelings about giving Gary another chance: “I miss the person he was.”

“Herself” is anchored by Dunne’s above-average performance, because she is able to convey vulnerability and grit with equal aplomb. Sandra is not a saintly mother. She makes mistakes and is sometimes impatient with her children. But there’s no doubt that her motherly love is deep and fierce. It’s what guides almost all of Sandra’s decisions, because she’s thinking of what’s best for her children more than what she thinks is best for herself.

Something happens in the last third of “Herself” that sets the movie apart from how viewers might think the story is going to end. It’s why “Herself,” despite a few hokey moments, ends up being grounded in the realism of life throwing some unexpected curveballs. It speaks to the movie’s larger message of how dealing with setbacks or challenges is much more important than the type of dwelling where someone lives.

Amazon Studios released “Herself” in select U.S. cinemas on December 30, 2020. Amazon Prime Video will premiere the movie on January 8, 2020.