Writers: Clare Dunne and Malcolm Campbell

Director: Phyllida Lloyd

Sometimes, a film speaks entirely to the moment of its release more profoundly than its creators could have predicted, and in the 2020 London Film Festival there is probably none more timely than Herself. With incidences of domestic violence rising under lockdown this summer and our wider appreciation of what being at home really means, Clare Dunne and Malcolm Campbell’s story of a Dublin mother trying to build her own home aligns perfectly with contemporary experience.

After enduring years of abuse Sandra and her two young daughters finally escape husband Gary and are placed in temporary accommodation by Dublin Council. Working two jobs as a cleaner, Sandra seeks something more permanent among the grotty and expensive flats available until she comes across a YouTube video about building a house from scratch. Supported by her employer, Sandra must keep the project a secret or risk losing the little support she is entitled to.

Phyllida Lloyd’s film has been afforded one of the few live screenings at the BFI on the Southbank and while the extensive digital programme is great, nothing can replace seeing a movie made for this level of projection in a cinema. In attendance, Lloyd and producer Sharon Horgan spoke of the importance of compassion and community emerging from our experience of recent months and of supporting those in need.

And with its DIY SOS meets Grand Designs meets Challenge Anneka vibe, Herself champions the idea that people can do anything if they try. Pulling together a group of friends, acquaintances and the odd local stranger Sandra meets in the hardware store, there is a strong message about the knock-on effects of kindness. A first big step taken by her employer Peggy leads others to donate time, money and resources to help this family make a new start.

If that all sounds overly chipper then Dunne and Campbell temper the story with Sandra’s struggle with the Council and her ex-husband to keep her children, along with the continuing trauma and physical damage from her husband’s many attacks. Lloyd shows only one of these at the start of the film, an ordinary domestic moment that escalates brutally, but it haunts the remainder of the story giving purpose and determination to Sandra’s actions.

Dunne is superb in the central role, a loving parent devoted to her daughters’ happiness determined to give them security and safety. Her exasperation as housing options dwindle is clear but Sandra refuses to accept a substandard home for her girls. Dunne’s representation of Sandra’s ongoing mental and bodily suffering is extremely affecting while the moment she finds her voice in court feels like a watershed for the character’s sense of self-worth.

An impressive secondary cast includes Harriet Walter as the generous Peggy always on-hand with a pep talk and a particularly excellent Conleth Hill who expands his ever-growing repertoire as reluctant builder Aido finding his own inspiration through the project that reawakens his interest in his work. Credit also to Ian Lloyd Anderson as the unlikable Gary promising change but soon proving he is as manipulative as ever.

Herself is not quite as gritty and unremitting as a Ken Loach picture and while the final twist seems overly harsh for a woman who has endured more than most, Lloyd, Dunne and Campbell find a hopeful ending where home and community prove restorative.

The BFI London Film Festival runs from 7 to 18 October

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