Herself is a well-intentioned but ultimately one-note message film that fails to build any real power.
A patron of the British arts, Phyllida Lloyd’s transition from a director of theater to film could hardly have been more conspicuous. Her debut feature, Mamma Mia, set box-office records, while her follow-up, The Iron Lady (2011), went on to win two Oscars — including a long-awaited third Best Actress prize for Meryl Streep. Lloyd’s belated third effort, however, sees her far from Hollywood’s glitz: Herself is the tale of Dublin-based single mother Sandra (Clare Dunne), who, having fled an abusive marriage with her two kids in tow, finds she cannot get a house from the council and embarks on establishing one of her own. It’s a film that certainly owes much of its socio-realist tenor to Ken Loach, whose familiar political and social commentary, largely centered around poverty, housing, and welfare, informs this interrogation of Irish bureaucracy. The film acts as a lamentation for the government’s lack of common sense and decency, as money is squandered and long-term solutions prove elusive. Many locals volunteer to be part of Sandra’s house-building team, yet while Herself appropriately emphasizes community spirit in the face of the state’s lack of support, it’s never clear why so many people want to aid her in this endeavor. In fact, the script, penned by Dunne herself in collaboration with screenwriter Malcolm Campbell, is strangely ungenerous as a character study; the film is so committed to expressing the desperation of Sandra’s predicament that the narrative ultimately gives short shrift to Sandra and the relationships she forms. The story is simply an onslaught of haphazard ideas that fail to build to any substantial power, including a hastily-contrived custody hearing introduced in the last act, which ultimately works only as a manipulative plot device. The film likewise fails to challenge the initial impression of any of its characters, leaving its human subjects largely without arc. For all its good intentions, Herself proves frustratingly one-note, failing to transform its blunt messaging into the portrait of hardscrabble realism it hopes to be.
You can watch Phyllida Lloyd’s Herself in theaters today or stream it on Amazon on January 8.
Originally published as part of London Film Festival 2020 — Dispatch 2.