Herself: In Every Possible Way, by David Bax
From the dewy grass to the communal singing to the Cranberries on the soundtrack, there’s an inherent and naturally charming Irishness to Phyllida Lloyd’s Herself. That charm, as it turns out, is not at odds with the film’s interest in harsh realities but rather an intentional complement, a reminder that the worst of this world doesn’t preclude the best of it.
Sandra (Clare Dunne) is a mother two two young girls, Molly (Molly McCann) and Emma (Ruby Rose O’Hara), whom she has mostly managed to shield from the fact that their father, Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson), is prone to fits of angry, violent abuse. But an attack–depicted by Lloyd in brutal detail just moments into the movie–in which Gary shatters Sandra’s hand proves to be the last straw. Sandra leaves with her daughters and takes up residency in public housing, determined to find a more permanent place for them to live even if she has to build it herself. Hey, that’s the name of the movie!
Among the questions Herself poses–about community, inalienable rights and other topics–maybe the one that stands out the most is, “How the hell do Irish family courts work?” In addition to her housing search, Sandra also has to fight custody challenges from Gary, whose admitted history of abuse ought to keep him from having even a whisper of a chance at anything beyond monitored visits.
In other ways, though, Sandra’s situation will be perfectly relatable to American audiences. Namely, in the fact that she’s not likely to get anything done without some money. Luckily for her, she happens on a benefactor when she takes a job cleaning the home of a rich woman (Harriet Walter) who gifts Sandra a piece of land on which to build. That’s admittedly pretty convenient but it’s also just one part of Herself‘s argument in favor of collective action, of people helping one another without any material benefit to themselves and thus enriching the lives of everyone.
Despite that warmly optimistic outlook, Herself is not pollyannaish. It’s clear-eyed in its acknowledgement that well-meaning bureaucratic social policies intended to aid people in general can fail to recognize people as individuals. Sandra has to compromise her standing in court by lying to the government since her plan to achieve essentially the same thing these social services aim to achieve–permanent housing–falls outside the prescribed procedure.
Ultimately, the film succeeds by putting its characters ahead of its allegories. Unlike, says, Irwin Winkler’s risible Life as a House, the dwelling Sandra is building isn’t an all-encompassing metaphor for her putting her life back together. Herself recognizes that doing what needs to be done to survive isn’t going to fix everything. That’s what friends are for.