I’ll be honest – when I think of hard-hitting social realism, Phyllida Lloyd, director of the delightfully sugary Mamma Mia!, is probably one of the last filmmakers who would come to mind. After all, it’s tough to imagine Ken Loach making a film as politically ambiguous as The Iron Lady. But with her fourth feature film Herself, Lloyd, with a screenplay and lead performance from Clare Dunne, sets out to create a drama centred on the disenfranchisement of working-class single mothers. The results aren’t bad, but certainly reveal that this is an area Lloyd isn’t entirely used to with some strange cinematography and distracting musical choices, despite the brilliance of Dunne.
The film opens with a shock to the system: Dunne’s exhausted protagonist Sandra spends some quality time with her two daughters, before being brutalised by her soon to be ex-husband. Their separation propels her into poverty against the backdrop of the Dublin housing crisis as she is forced to live in a hotel room while working three separate jobs. But her ingenuity leads her to an unusual solution: to build her own house with the help of a prickly retired doctor she cleans for and a small community of friends. Dunne does an incredible job selling the highs and lows of this character, and while her screenplay is occasionally clichéd, it works as an effective jumping-off point for the performances orbiting it.
While this plot allows for some effective character work, especially regarding Sandra and her relationship with her young daughters, the idea of being pulled out of poverty by a kindly middle-class lady feels somewhat patronising, especially against the backdrop of real-world events. The doctor herself is a kind woman, and I don’t say this to begrudge those who want to help people less fortunate, but by presenting systemic issues and making the solution a kind individual, Herself misses an opportunity to make more interesting observations. Having said this, I appreciated Lloyd’s takedown of the bureaucracy of poverty, and how forms and regulations leave behind the people who need help the most.
Similarly, the aesthetic of the film is rather confused, flip-flopping between light-hearted ‘inspirational’ moments and gritty realism. Although this could be made to work, it sometimes results in the realistic moments feeling insincere, and the uplifting moments detracting from Sandra’s struggle. For instance, one particularly odd scene sees her raising the structure of her house to the backdrop of David Guetta and Sia’s ‘Titanium’, a stylistic choice that made the film feel more like a music video than a drama. Though to be fair, when the style remains in the realm of social realism, it can be very effective – a scene of Sandra singing to her friends comes to mind as especially affecting.
Ultimately, I respect that Lloyd and Dunne wanted this story to be told, and on the whole Herself is an engaging watch. While I sometimes found it difficult to ignore the more glaring flaws in the tone and style, the sense of hope emanating from this film was especially effective in such a bleak time for humanity. Despite it’s problems, this is still an interesting meditation on female independence, victimhood and dignity.
Herself plays at the London Film Festival and will receive a UK release at a date yet to be confirmed.
You can read more of our coverage of LFF 2020 here.
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