Phyllida Lloyd's two best-known works as a director are, it's fair to say, not the most subtle. Mamma Mia! pounded its audience with feel-good musical numbers, while The Iron Lady served as a vehicle for a transformative Meryl Streep to march right through Downing Street and on to the Oscars stage yet again. So with that in mind, Herself looked set to be a very gentle, very middle-of-the-road take on a woman battling adversity to build her own home. A more cynical reviewer than I might suggest it's exactly that, but it's actually something far more interesting and imaginative.
Sandra (Clare Dunne) is a mum-of-two in Dublin, whom we meet as she finally breaks free of her abusive husband Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson). As a single mum, she enters the bizarre curiosity of Ireland's housing system – previously depicted last year by Paddy Breathnach's excellent Rosie – in which she and her girls are housed in a hotel but must enter via a back entrance so paying guests can't see her bags of clothes and harried appearance. Tired of this predicament, Sandra is inspired by online promises that she can assemble a “self-build” house on a suitable patch of land.
It's at this point that contrivance pours into the story's “gently uplifting drama” mould. Sandra works as a cleaner for wealthy doctor Peggy (Harriet Walter) who, thanks to her affection for Sandra's late mother, is willing to offer up an ample corner of her vast back garden. She also bumps into kindly civil engineer Aido (Conleth Hill) at a hardware store and he consents to provide the expertise and hours of free labour to keep her ragtag band of volunteer builders on task.
Despite its fairly schematic first act, Herself serves as a consistently surprising drama with real emotional heft. The central performance of Dunne, who also co-wrote the script with Malcolm Campbell, is rife with the trauma and desperation of a parent trying her best against impossible odds, much like Sarah Greene in the aforementioned Rosie or Hayley Squires in I, Daniel Blake. One late scene provides her with a moment to grandstand and rage against the machine, which she grabs with both hands to deliver an emotional powerhouse of a passionate monologue.
The entire film is like a Ken Loach movie infused with multiplex-friendly sweetness and this is a movie that'll do great business when it does finally make its way into cinemas. It's a delightfully unbalancing drama, delivering heart-wrenching twists of the bureaucracy knife alongside the sun-dappled pleasantness of the community spirit scenes. Lloyd finds intensity and horror in sequences of abuse, but is just as at home depicting a family belting out David Guetta track Titanium or dancing along to C'est La Vie by B*Witched. It's an Irish film, and they want you to know it.
This is Dunne's show, but she's given plenty of support by the ensemble around her. Hill is far warmer than those who know him as Game of Thrones schemer Varys will expect, while Harriet Walter channels the perfect amount of don't-give-a-shit pensioner energy into Peggy. Herself walks an elegant line between its indie charm and its emotional realness, with Ian Lloyd Anderson delivering exactly the right amount of insincere remorse that will be familiar to anyone familiar with abusive men.
Its constituent parts might be familiar, but Lloyd throws them all together and constructs a consistently entertaining tale of a woman trying to survive at the heart of a hostile system, with a little help from the kindness of strangers. Dunne and Campbell's script infuses the potentially saccharine template with bracing blasts of ice-cold reality, resulting in a movie that scratches a great deal of cinephile itches at the same time. Even its massively on-the-nose final metaphor just about works. Few films could get away with that.
Dir: Phyllida Lloyd
Scr: Clare Dunne, Malcolm Campbell
Prd: Sharon Horgan, Rory Gilmartin, Ed Guiney
DOP: Tom Comerford
Music: Natalie Holt
Country: Ireland, UK
Run time: 97 minutes
Herself is is screening as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2020.