BFI #LFF 2020: HERSELF Film Review

Sandra Dunne and the cast of HERSELF (2020)

Intimate, timely and empowering, Phyllida Lloyd’s latest film HERSELF is one of the strongest films of the BFI London Film Festival so far

4 out of 5 stars

Phyllida Lloyd’s latest film HERSELF may not get the big-screen attention her previous work MAMMA MIA! or THE IRON LADY did, but this new British-Irish hope drama more than deserves its place in the spotlight thanks to its stirring script and superb lead performance from co-collaborator Clare Dunne.

HERSELF tells the story of Sandra Kelly (Clare Dunne), a young Dublin-based mum struggling to build a better life for herself and her kids. After fleeing from her abusive husband Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson), Sandra is forced to live with her two daughters inside a hotel room until the council provide her with a home. When it becomes clear that the local council won’t provide that home, she decides to build one herself, calling on the support of a new community of friends, including her employer Peggy (Harriet Walter).

Considering this is Dunne’s first time as a screenwriter (albeit, working in collaboration with Malcolm Campbell and Lloyd), Dunne impresses with this finely crafted story of darkness and eventual triumph. With HERSELF, Lloyd and Dunne succeed in giving a voice to the voiceless, delivering a nuanced portrait of a woman rediscovering herself after years of living in fear. Yet, crucially, neither Sandra nor her children are defined merely by their circumstances or experiences.

Cinematically, Lloyd builds the story slowly, skilfully reminding us of the threat that Gary still brings, revealing his attack in fragments, reminders woven through Sandra’s withdrawal and recovery. Scarier still is the emotional hold that he holds over Sandra, picking his moments to emotionally blackmail and gaslight the young mother.

In the lead role of Sandra, Clare Dunne is a quiet revelation, flawlessly showcasing her ability to wear her emotions on her sleeve while struggling to conceal them. Dunne approaches Sandra’s story from a matter-of-fact point of view and as an actor she utterly convinces as a woman beaten down by circumstance but defiantly refusing to give up.

The supporting cast is equally excellent, most notably Conleth Hill as the sceptical but open-minded contractor Aido, Harriet Walter as Sandra’s cranky yet kind employer Peggy and Dmitry Vinokurov as the studly carpenter brought in to help with the build, yet whom the film is wise enough not to treat as a love interest.

Yet, there are still a few details that feel a little clunky. Sandra’s situation starts to turn around when Peggy stumbles across upon a how-to build your own house video that Sandra has been watching on her laptop, gifting Sandra a piece of land and the €35,000 Euros she needs to build the house, a luxury many in Sandra’s situation fail to have. The similar plot convenience can also be said for Aido, a skilled builder who agrees to help supervise her construction project practically for free just because he happens to know what a nasty piece of work Sandra’s ex-husband Gary really is.

That said, whenever HERSELF settles into predictability, the strength of Dunne’s performance pulls it through, to leave behind a small but timely, empowering story that is arguably Lloyd’s finest work to date.

HERSELF screens at the BFI London Film Festival on 8 October 2020.