Phyllida Lloyd’s “Herself,” an Irish drama of spousal abuse set against Dublin’s housing crisis, has some narrative weak spots but its foundation of resilience and heart is strong.
Previous forays into film by Lloyd, a veteran theater director, have been more elaborate, starrier affairs (“Mamma Mia!” “The Iron Lady”). But “Herself” is a smaller, neo-realistic and often stirring story about Sandra (Clare Dunne, who co-wrote the script with Malcolm Campbell), a mother of two daughters (Molly McCann, Ruby Rose O’Hara) and the wife of a monstrous brute, Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson).
Some of the major beats in “Herself” verge on cliché but everything in between rings true thanks to Dunne’s steadfast performance and the film’s delicate sense of humanity. The film begins almost immediately with the ruthless beating of Sandra by Gary. It’s an anguishing scene, of course, though one, given its blunt timing in the film, divorced from any connection to the characters. Still, Lloyd from the start keeps the camera’s focus on the connection between Sandra and her young girls, whom she sends running as soon as Gary comes home.
The bond between Sandra and daughters — both of whom are far more natural than most children seen in movies — is the abiding through line of “Herself,” as is Sandra’s determination to find a safe home for her children. Housing and homelessness has been a problem in Ireland in recent years, and it’s not uncommon for those needing public housing to be put up in hotels for months or even years. When Sandra approaches the housing authority, which places her in a hotel, “Herself” verges on the kind of social realism Ken Loach specializes in. Sandra comes up with a novel pitch: If she builds her own house from a kit costing about $50,000, she’ll actually cost the government less money.
Sandra, a waitress at a pub, finds an unlikely benefactor in a physician she helps care for (a very good Harriet Walter) who offers a backyard as a plot. Through pluck and community, Sandra assembles a small, improvising crew of helpers, led by a reluctant but kindly contractor named Aido (Conleth Hill, also very fine). A warm spirit of neighborly goodwill grows as everyone pitches in, which Aido attributes to the old Irish term of “meitheal.”
That may sound like a feel-good, made-for-the-movies tale, and “Herself” does indeed conjure an air of fable. But the film, earthy and sober, refuses to be carried aloft by sentiment, instead navigating a difficult and painful path toward self-preservation and renewal.