BFI LFF 2020: Herself – Film Review

Herself is a finely crafted story of sadness yet also joy, following the life of Sandra as a mother struggling to provide for her young daughters after leaving an abusive relationship.

When I first started watching this film, it reminded me of the Jacqueline Wilson books that I would read when growing up, and sometimes still do even now. Those stories often portray young girls going through awful and taboo things, turning everyday occurrences for them (being alone or left, separation, broken families and even hatred and hurt) into magical moments. When Sandra’s children are wanting to escape, they focus on being princesses or running around outside with insects. However, this story doesn’t come from the children’s perspectives, it comes from their mother, in all its grit and darkness. This film isn’t a fairy tale or an escape, instead it’s the truth behind so many families trying to get away from hurt and pain. Brilliantly written by Clare Dunne who also plays the character of Sandra, with help from Malcolm Campbell, Herself dives deeply into the harsh world that so many people sadly live in. From great highs to awful lows, we really are taken on a journey with this story, feeling so many emotions as I sit and gasp with horror on my sofa. I’m unsure of Clare Dunne’s connection with the story, whether it’s based on fact or her life, but I think the story she tells is fantastic in capturing everything.

Her character of Sandra is someone you want to hold tight and tell them that it will all be ok. I liked how we could see her in many places, from trying to blend in on the school playground, to standing her ground at a builder’s merchants. I think so many films like this often tell the story of sad women and leave them in that box, whereas this tale shows us how awfulness in our lives doesn’t have to define us and we can build and grow from it, in this case, both literally and metaphorically. When Sandra wants to build a home for her and her daughters to live happily in, we see a community of people coming together, not for money or even gratitude, but because someone is in need. I think it was important to keep the realism from characters like Aido (played by Conleth Hill, who I think is brilliant), with health and safety, and bringing Sandra’s plans down to earth, even if it made him feel rude. To have this contrasted with Peggy (played by the fantastic Harriet Walter) who is one of Sandra’s employers, bringing hope and love into her life, it really was lovely to see a motherly figure, suggesting to us that there are people out there who want to help us, sometimes we just need to make the first move and reach out.

To finish with the characters, we can’t forget about Molly McCann and Ruby Rose O’Hara who play the young daughters in the film. I am in so much awe of children who want to act. It must seem so fun and interesting, but when presented with a film like this, we really put children to the test. To say they were amazing is an understatement. Their roles felt so real, and with such purpose too. I really appreciated seeing two young actresses who knew their characters and could respect the story, without getting too upset by it all.

Back to the story, and I really like how it took us on a journey, keeping me on the edge of my seat and tissues in reach, just in case! I think the housing side of things was a really different approach to what other films may focus on when looking at domestic abuse. Adding to this, I’m glad that the father character Gary (played excellently by Ian Lloyd Anderson) wasn’t given time to let us love or loathe him. Instead, the victim was believed rather than challenged, and I like how we were on Sandra’s side form the start and that we didn’t have to be pushed that way. I think gritty films and TV shows often stick to dark colour palettes, taking from the dark storylines, but I’m glad that this film had moments of colour and light, showing us how even in the worst circumstances, there can be hope and love. Director Phyllida Lloyd has really done well to bring Clare’s story to life, in a way that can bring hope to victims, but also awareness to those who may not be aware of what happens to families who they may see on the school run, live next to, or just even walk past. I’m really glad that I’ve been able to see Herself to learn for myself how the system works, and in ways that it doesn’t.

We really do need to do better for people in situations that push them down and make them feel small. Whether it’s believing the victim, accessing questions we ask, or educating ourselves on things that happen in our communities and how we can help, I hope this film sticks with people like I know that it will stick with me.

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