Review: ‘The Last Duel’ (2021), starring Matt Damon, Adam Driver, Jodie Comer and Ben Affleck

October 7, 2021

by Carla Hay

Adam Driver and Matt Damon in “The Last Duel” (Photo by Patrick Redmond/20th Century Studios)

“The Last Duel” (2021)

Directed by Ridley Scott

Culture Representation: Taking place in France from the years 1377 to the late 1380s, the dramatic film “The Last Duel” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and royalty.

Culture Clash: Two former friends, who fought battles together in the French military, face off in a violent duel after one of the men is accused of raping the other man’s wife.

Culture Audience: “The Last Duel” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in violent medieval-era dramas where some of the acting and dialogue are too modern be considered authentic, and sadistic machismo is put on the highest pedestal.

Jodie Comer in “The Last Duel” (Photo by Patrick Redmond/20th Century Studios)

When watching “The Last Duel,” it might be annoying or amusing to see Matt Damon in a mullet, as he fumbles attempts to be a medieval Frenchman, by having a modern British-American accent. Ultimately, the movie has nothing new or insightful to say about violent machismo. If you really need to see the same rape of a woman depicted twice in a movie, just for the sake of showing the rape from the perspectives of the rapist and the victim, then “The Last Duel” is your kind of movie.

Directed by Ridley Scott, “The Last Duel” is written by Damon, Ben Affleck and Nicole Holofcener. They adapted the movie’s screenplay from Eric Jager’s 2004 book of the same name. Scott, Damon, Affleck and Holofcener are among the producers of “The Last Duel” movie. All of them have considerable talent, but all of them have made much better movies than “The Last Duel.”

It’s worth noting that “The Last Duel” is the first movie screenplay that Damon and Affleck have written together since their Oscar-winning original screenplay for 1997’s “Good Will Hunting,” a better-quality film about masculine identity. (Damon and Affleck also co-starred in “Good Will Hunting.”) “The Last Duel” certainly has the top-notch production design and cinematography that viewers have come to expect when Scott does a period movie, but it’s no “Gladiator.” In addition, “The Last Duel” has too much subpar acting from Affleck and cringeworthy dialogue in several parts of the movie for “The Last Duel” to be an Oscar-caliber film.

People familiar with the medieval era already know it was a brutal and violent period in history, when women were treated as nothing more than property to be bought and sold for marriage, with husbands having the legal right to “own” their wives. All of that misogyny is accurately depicted in “The Last Duel.” The problem is that the movie has a tone of showing hatred and degradation of women with a little too much enthusiasm.

It’s as if the filmmakers felt that just by having the movie take place during this ancient era, it was enough of a reason to show this misogyny so gratuitously. Any attempt to show any female character with some kind of inner strength is rushed in the last third of the film. This half-hearted nod to female empowerment doesn’t come across as genuine but rather it seems manipulative. It’s the equivalent of filmmakers putting a little dab of cleaner on the avalanche of dirty, sexist muck that’s poured all over the film.

Based on true events, “The Last Duel” takes place in France (mostly in Paris) from 1377 to the late 1380s. But if you were to believe this movie, women couldn’t possibly be as smart or as powerful as men. It completely refuses to acknowledge that women had positions of power and minds of their own in France during the medieval era—most notably Eleanor of Aquitaine, who was a leader more than 200 years before this story takes place. “The Last Duel” is so insistent on shutting out any depictions of intelligent women in power (even if it’s power in their own households) that when Queen Isabeau (played by Serena Kennedy) appears in the movie, she doesn’t have any lines of dialogue and is just there as a spectator sitting next to her king husband (who does talk) during the jousting match that is the movie’s namesake.

“The Last Duel,” is told in three chapters, each from the perspective of the three people involved in a rape case that is the reason for this jousting duel:

  • Jean de Carrouges (played by Damon) is a domineering, middle-aged knight, who has fought many battles in the Crusades. He has the scars on his face and the rest of his body to prove it. Jean’s first wife and son died during the bubonic plague known as the Black Death. His second marriage is to a woman who is the story’s rape victim.
  • Jacques Le Gris (played by Adam Driver), a roguish playboy who’s about 10 years younger than Jean, has risen through the military ranks to become a captain. Jacques is a never-married bachelor who has never had a committed love relationship.
  • Marguerite de Carrouges (played by Jodie Comer), Jean’s second wife, is about 20 years younger than Jean. She comes from a well-to-do family that has fallen on hard times because her scandal-plagued father has been branded as a traitor. Marguerite accuses Jacques of raping her.

Each of the movie’s chapters is titled “Part One: The Truth According to Jean de Carrouges,” “Part Two: The Truth According to Jacque Le Gris” and “Part Three: The Truth According to Marguerite de Carrouges.” Unlike Showtime’s 2014-2019 drama series “The Affair,” “The Last Duel” doesn’t have wildly different memories of the same incidents from the three people involved in a love triangle. The memories and perspectives do have some differences, but they add up to a generally consistent overview of what life was like for the three people who are at the center of the rape case.

Someone who can influence the outcome of the rape case is the hard-partying Pierre d’Alençon (played by Affleck), who is the presiding judge and a close ally of Jacques. Pierre is also the much-older cousin of King Charles IV (played by Alex Lawther), who is portrayed as a brat in his 20s who doesn’t have the maturity to be an effective leader, but he’s tolerated by people around him because he inherited the title of king.

One of the biggest problems with “The Last Duel” is that it’s filled with modern lines of dialogue that sound like they’re straight out of a foul-mouthed movie written by Quentin Tarantino. Certain people, especially Pierre, like to say the words “fuck” or “fucking” a lot. That doesn’t mean that cursing didn’t exist in the medieval era, but the way the words are used in a contemporary-sounding dialogue context is just not accurate for those times.

And it doesn’t help that Affleck and Damon (who are both American) struggle with their fake European accents. Damon has entire scenes where he sounds American and British every time he talks. Driver (who is American) does a much better job at having a European-sounding accent, while Comer doesn’t have to pretend at all, since she’s British in real life.

For a movie that’s supposed to take place in France, it’s kind of pathetic that there are very few French people in “The Last Duel” cast, and none of these French actors has a large role in the film. (“The Last Duel” was actually filmed in Ireland.) This lack of significant French representation in the movie’s cast is an indication that “The Last Duel” director Scott (who is British) has an ethnic bias when it comes to who he wants in his movies. It’s also obvious that he didn’t care about having accurate language consistency for “The Last Duel” characters, since the stars of the movie sound British and American instead of French.

And in case anyone mistakenly thinks “The Last Duel” is a prestigious, Oscar-caliber film, think again. The movie goes into borderline softcore porn territory. Under Scott’s direction, “The Last Duel” seems enamored with showing in more than one tacky scene that Pierre and Jacques regularly participated in orgies together with willing women. One of the orgy scenes has a very “male gaze” to it, because it lingers on three women on a bed having sex with each other, while they wait for Pierre to join them. It’s such a predictable stereotype in these types of movie orgy scenes that same-sex hookups always comes from the women, not from the men.

Pierre is married with eight children, but he seems to think his family life just gets in the way of his sex parties. He even started to have an orgy in front of his pregnant wife Lady Marie Chamaillart (played by Zoé Bruneau), who seems to know what’s about to happen and quickly leaves the room. After having this orgy, Jacques asks Pierre if he wants to spend time with his wife. Pierre scoffs at the idea and says that Marie is “pregnant and hysterical. I’d rather take my chances with the wolves.”

This 152-minute movie plods along in showing Jean’s transactional marriage to Marguerite, whom he hopes will bear him a son so that he can have a male heir again. Jean drove a hard bargain for Marguerite’s dowry, by convincing Marguerite’s disgraced and financially desperate father Sir Robert de Thibouville (played by Nathaniel Parker) to give him a coveted strip of land as part of the deal. Sir Robert reluctantly agrees.

Jean is very patriotic and proud to serve in the military. Jacques becomes a close companion of his during their military battles, and Jean even saves Jacques’ life on one occasion. When Jean is not away from home for war duties, his occupation is being a landlord, but the Black Death caused many of his tenants to die, so he’s been struggling financially and is heavily in debt. Pierre later takes advantage of Jean’s financial woes when Pierre decides that Jean has become his enemy.

Marguerite handles the landlord transactions when Jean is away from home, and she finds out that he’s been an irresponsible business manager by not bothering to collect rent when he was supposed to do it. However, Marguerite is in the type of marriage where she can’t really speak up and point out these mistakes to Jean because his huge ego would just dismiss her concerns. She is constantly reminded by people in society that she should not speak up about problems that would be considered “embarrassing” or “disobedient” to her husband or other men.

Jacques and Marguerite meet at an outdoor party, where Jean introduces his new wife to his friend and tells Marguerite to give a friendly kiss to Jacques. Marguerite ends up kissing Jacques on the lips, and he looks at her in a way that shows it’s attraction at first sight, with that kiss causing some kind of spark in him. Marguerite admits to some of her female friends at the party that she thinks Jacques is handsome, but she doesn’t trust him because of his “bad boy” reputation.

Marguerite is well-read, while Jean is illiterate. In more than one scene in the film, Jacques and some other people express surprise that Jean allows Marguerite to read books. Jacques uses this information to his advantage when, shortly after he meets Marguerite, he flirts with her and tries to impress her with his knowledge of literature.

Later, it becomes clear that Jacques’ lust for Marguerite has turned into obsession, although he claims several times that he’s deeply in love with Marguerite and it’s the first time that he’s ever felt this way. It doesn’t justify him raping her. The movie leaves no ambiguity that this rape did occur.

Up until the rape (which is depicted in a disturbing way that might be too upsetting for sensitive viewers), “The Last Duel” becomes a soap opera filled with clichés that you might find in a cheap and tawdry romance novel. There’s the pretty housewife who’s lonely and bored because her husband is away from home a lot. And when he’s at home, their sex life is passionless and he doesn’t seem to care about what her needs are.

There’s the workaholic husband who’s so preoccupied with his work and self-image that he doesn’t see how unhappy his wife is. He thinks that all he needs to be a good husband is to be a good provider. He’s also annoyed with his wife because she hasn’t gotten pregnant as quickly as he wanted. After five years of marriage, she still hasn’t conceived a child.

There’s the tall, dark “bad boy” who’s just waiting for the right moment to “seduce” the lonely wife. The fact that the husband used to be the bad boy’s best friend makes the bad boy’s lust for the wife even more taboo. Driver is perfectly adequate in this villain role, but he’s limited by this two-dimensional character, and therefore it’s not an outstanding performance.

Also part of this parade of soap opera clichés is the bad boy’s “wingman”/sidekick, who gleefully helps with the scheming because he wants to cause some chaos too. In “The Last Duel,” the “wingman” character is named Adam Louvel (played by Adam Nagaitis), and he plays a pivotal role in Jacques’ planning of the rape. Just like Jacques, he’s a shallow character with no backstory.

The extra strip of land that Jean was promised as part of Marguerite’s dowry becomes the subject of a legal dispute when Jacques, in an effort to impress Pierre, seizes the land and hands it over to Pierre. It results in a messy lawsuit, with Jean suing Pierre and Jacques. Pierre grows increasingly alienated from and irritated with Jean because of this legal dispute. Meanwhile, Jacques tries to put the lawsuit behind him and makes the first move to repair his broken friendship with Jean.

However, any attempts for Jean and Jacques to become friends again get obliterated when the rape happens. “The Last Duel” gives harsh but realistic depictions of the victim blaming and victim shaming that rape survivors experience when they come forward and try to get justice for this crime. Complicating matters, Jacques admits that he had a sexual encounter with Marguerite, but he says it was consensual. He vehemently denies that it was rape. For many people who hear about Marguerite’s accusation, it’s a “he said/she said” situation.

The movie shows in chilling details how victim blaming/shaming reactions to a rape story are universal and timeless and don’t just come from men. Jean’s mother Nicole de Carrouges (played by Harriet Walter) believes Marguerite, but she scolds Marguerite for not keeping quiet about the rape. Meanwhile, Marguerite’s best friend Marie (played by Tallulah Haddon) doubts Marguerite’s accusation, because Marie thinks Marguerite was attracted to Jacques and that Marguerite might have done something to make Jacques think she was willing to have sex with him.

In her depiction of Marguerite, Comer gives an admirable performance of a woman who often has to suppress her emotions, out of fear of being labeled as a “hysterical” wife who might embarrass her husband. Through tearful eyes that still show steely determination, she achieves a balance of being emotionally vulnerable but mentally strong. Marguerite is going to need that inner strength when she gets an onslaught of criticism from many people because she went public with this accusation.

Marguerite tells Jean about the rape before they decide to go public with this accusation. Jean’s initial reaction isn’t to comfort Marguerite but to get angry that Jacques has betrayed him again. Jean eventually takes Marguerite’s side, but he’s motivated more by defending his own honor and reputation than defending Marguerite’s. Because it’s not spoiler information that “The Last Duel” is about Jean and Jacques’ jousting showdown about the rape, the movie just becomes scene after scene that builds up to this battle. Marguerite’s feelings and trauma get pushed to the side, while the movie ultimately gives more importance to the feuding between Jean and Jacques.

Although the movie shows Marguerite’s considerable bravery, it’s Jean who’s supposed to be the “hero” of the story for defending his wife. We know this because the viewer catharsis in the movie is supposed to come mainly from the jousting battle, which centers “The Last Duel” back on the men. The movie ends with scenes showing Marguerite, but make no mistake: “The Last Duel” is very much a movie about egotistical men and the violence they commit to get what they want.

20th Century Studios will release “The Last Duel” in U.S. cinemas on October 15, 2021.

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.

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