There’s nary a peep from Meryl Streep in Phyllida Lloyd ’s follow-up to Mamma Mia! and The Iron Lady. Lloyd says she’s done with blockbusters. And, technically, this drama, about an abused wife, is a low-key affair. But don’t be fooled. Herself is destined for great things.

a young boy standing next to a tree

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Produced by Sharon Horgan, it features a breakout performance from Irish theatre actress Clare Dunne (who co-wrote the script) as Sandra, a shy and retiring cleaner. Sandra refuses to be beaten into submission by her husband, the passive-aggressive Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson). But Dublin’s housing crisis means that Sandra and her two young daughters will have to wait years for a council home of their own. In the meantime, they’re moved to an airport hotel, where they enter the premises via the back door (like the characters in 2018 gem, Rosie, Sandra and her kids basically become second class citizens, overnight).

One day, Sandra has the idea to make her own house (she goes online and finds it can be done, for 35,000 euros). There are plenty of obstacles in her way, not least the fact that this bid for independence may play into Gary’s hands.

The supporting cast are a dream. Harriet Walter plays Peggy, the posh doctor who offers Sandra a patch of land to build on. Conleth Hill is Aido, the no-nonsense builder who takes charge of the operation. Some actors resemble plants, hastily stuffed into soil. Not Walter and Hill. Their roots go all the way down.

Gallery: What to watch at the 2020 London Film Festival (Harper’s Bazaar (UK))

Harriet Walter wearing a neck tie: Harriet Walter starring in Herself

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Harriet Walter starring in Herself

With the help of Peggy and Aido, Sandra gets to work. At first, it’s all very serene and you half expect Harrison Ford and the rest of the cast from Witness to troop into view. But when the setbacks come, they’re horribly plausible. After one incident, I could barely keep watching (in fact, every time Sandra picked up a drill, I felt sick).

Just as important is the stuff going on inside our heroine. Every time Sandra sees Gary, her emotional clock is reset. She wants to move forwards; it’s just not that easy. The most memorable (and upsetting) scene takes place in a courtroom. Incredibly, Sandra’s the one in the dock.

This is a very Irish story, but Herself will speak to people all over the globe. Virginia Woolf thought women needed a room of their own. This film suggests they need a house. The soundtrack’s a problem (C’est La Vie, by B*witched, looms large). Still and all, Lloyd’s radical fairytale is enchanting.

Screening at the BFI Southbank and selected cinemas nationwide as part of the London Film Festival today, tomorrow and Saturday