The topic of abused women has lined the narratives of many films. Lifetime has built an entire empire around women in danger, either from a violent man or a predatory female. Very few, however, tackle the issue from a less sordid perspective such as Herself. Directed by Phyllida Lloyd (The Iron Lady, Mamma Mia!) and written by Claire Dunne, who also stars, Herself is not just a harrowing tale of domestic abuse, but also the quiet, compassionate account of how a battered woman with next to nothing manages to stand on her own two feet rather than be just another number waiting for government assistance.
The concept of a house as a symbol of safety gets a double significance when, on the day of Sandra’s worst fight with her husband Gary (Ian Lloyd Richardson, supremely repulsive and mercilessly violent), she has her daughter deliver a message hidden inside a doll house to a stranger. That message, to call the cops, saves Sandra from a violent fate, but rather than placing her in a safe environment, it also leaves her fairly destitute and humiliated. Finding a decent place becomes a nightmare in the one scene where she enters what is frankly, a shit-hole apartment. She then seeks government assistance to find public housing, which also lands in a thud when she gets reduced to a number and an indeterminate future which Sandra simply can’t hold on to.
Help does arrive from unexpected sources, and then the movie shifts from largely abandoning the terrible shadow of Gary and immersing Sandra in the comfort of good people. For Sandra, it’s a stroke of luck that may sound a bit too pat to believe, but this isn’t a movie about what can believably happen (although I have seen many a story in which people come together from all walks of life to help a person in need). Herself is a movie about a woman refusing to be a battered wife, an unfit mother, and the ultimate victim of a society that already treats women like her as undesirables. Sandra, as low as she has fallen, isn’t about to wait for anyone to resume her life. Thanks to the internet, she finds a tutorial on how to build her own home — her little piece of heaven — and goes after it with a vengeance,
In her first movie in almost ten years since [the aforementioned] The Iron Lady, Phyllida Lloyd veers off into Ken Loach territory to tell a story about the forgotten tinted in hope. She’s not idealistic — images of Gary and a severely battered Sandra peek in through the narrative as a reminder of what the fallback could be, should she return to her past. Also, having Sandra dance a delicate line of diplomacy between the forces would tear her apart from her daughters and the man just waiting, off-screen, creates a sense of constant tension even in the movie’s sunniest sections.
A lesser movie would have gone for a more black and white confrontation between Sandra and Gary. The criminally under-viewed French movie Custody, available on Prime, also focused on an abused woman in a particularly brutal manner, and like that one, Herself deftly keeps the climactic scene off-screen in a way that reminded me a bit of Rebecca (1940). While frustrating, it is a dark turn that the movie must take in order to secure Sandra’s own freedom. In doing so, we don’t get overwhelmed by whatever violence would have taken place, but are horrified at what could have been, the rage that instigated it.
Herself is not a movie I can say I enjoyed — as I said, the off-screen menace remains for most of the movie, and we are privy to see Sandra suffering bouts of panic attacks — but as for a look into the life of an abused woman and how she fights back, it is a must-see.