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MOVIES: Herself - Review (LFF 2020)

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Herself is a proper tear-jerker that sets out to tug at the heartstrings and succeeds, despite the fact that it plays it a tad too safe at times in its desire to emerge as a crowd-pleaser meaning that some of its impact is lost as a result. Director of The Iron Lady and the first Mamma Mia, Phyllida Lloyd returns with the focus on protagonist Sandra, a mother of two kids escaping a past fraught with domestic violence. Struggling to provide a home for her daughters, Sandra sets out to make one from scratch, using her contacts and ingenuity to do so. It’s a project to recover a sense of identity, freedom and ownership, away from the nightmarish past that comes crashing down around her once it’s brought back into life.

 The film is incredibly topical in its issues that it sets out to represent, building on traumatic experiences for a look into the multiple sides of humanity and the strength that it takes to rebuild after so much is lost, over and over again. Clare Dunne makes the absolute most of the role that she is given, excelling in the lead role with a truly heartbreaking performance that completely invests the audience in the storytelling and does much of the heavy lifting required to make the emotional beats land. Sandra’s bond with her daughters is tested over the course of the film and the focus on this core mother-daughter dynamic is where Herself is at its best, but unfortunately, Dunne represents Herself at its best. It’s a movie where the more you spend thinking on it the more the flaws arise, rendering it wholly reliant on its emotional tear-jerking moments (which are, to give Herself credit, good emotional tear-jerking moments). 

Unfortunately, the flaws are many in Herself. Its script is rushed and overly formulaic, its flaws perhaps best demonstrated by its music montages that feel so tonally at odds with the rest of the film that when a good music montage is used towards the end of the film it falls flat because of this and doesn’t have the impact as it should. Whilst it’s cool to see artists The Killers show up on the soundtrack, these overly-engineered montages rob Herself of its uniqueness, as the film goes out of its way to neatly resolve the ending to create a crowd-pleaser. 

The film’s tone almost feels incredibly unbalanced and disjointed as a result of this decision. It becomes so overly formulaic that the supporting cast aren’t given much room to escape their all-too generic feel, as they are completely thinly drawn across the board as they come in and out of Sandra’s life. 

However, Herself manages to handle the social commentary delicately which raises some important points about the injustice faced by characters like Sandra whose issue is not new or uncommon. It feels explicitly tied to the housing crisis with families struggling to afford even basic accommodation and acts as an incredibly relevant drama, keeping its tension high throughout as Sandra is constantly faced with the dilemma that she might not have her kids once her house is built due to the ongoing conflict with her abusive ex. 

Its opening scene is incredibly shocking and arresting, so expect a bleak start, with the film navigating a tonal shift over the course of its runtime without always doing so successfully. And ultimately because of this, Herself falls short of its ambition but has enough in it to emerge as a likeable effort from Lloyd that is in no small part down to the powerhouse performance of Dunne, who does much of the heavy-lifting. 

Herself comes out theatrically on October 16 in the United Kingdom. You can watch the UK & Irish trailer here

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