“You ask me questions like ‘why didn’t you leave him’ but you never ask why he didn’t stop”. Domestic abuse is hard enough for women on its own, but it is an experience only made harder by the broken systems that deal with it. Herself is an honest and heart-wrenching story of an Irish family struggling to give themselves a better life.
Claire Dunne, who also co-wrote the film, stars as Sandra, a mother of two who is forced into temporary accommodation after exiting an abusive relationship. After struggling with the council on a permanent housing solution she finds a video online for a self-build costing only £35k. So, with a loan from her wealthy employer and only a handful of people helping her, she starts to build her own house.
Domestic abuse has been depicted on screen in so many different ways. Some choose to show the gritty, dark side of it, others choose a happy ending. Herself does neither. It instead portrays an experience of ups and downs, a reality where things are not fair and just but sometimes it isn’t as bad as it could be.
At its core, it’s a film about the kindness of people. When Sandra reaches out and asks for help a group of people come together to build a house from scratch. It shows that although it may feel like it, you are not alone.
Dunne is remarkable in her role, no doubt due in part to the fact she co-wrote it, and she is sustained by an incredible supporting cast made up of Harriet Walter and Conleth Hill, among others. The use of mostly lesser-known actors gives the film an authenticity and the girls playing the daughters are magnificent for their age.
The writing is similarly remarkable. The choice to portray Gary, Sandra’s ex, as a typical workie lad instead of some overwhelmingly hideous monster reminds us that abuse can come from anyone. He is charming at points and aggressive at others, one minute he might tell her he loves her and the next he’s blaming her for their separation. It isn’t just black and white.
The only moment that took away from the film was the scene with the use of the song Bulletproof. It was an understandable choice given the subject matter but it felt out of place. The song is commercially successful and dated while the film is understated and timeless, they just don’t match.
Director Phyllida Lloyd has done a fantastic job and has proven that she is capable of more than just blockbuster hits like Mamma Mia! She strikes a balance between optimism and pessimism and ends the film in a simultaneously heavy and hopeful note. It will be interesting to see where her next project takes her.
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