'Herself': Film Review | Sundance 2020

Courtesy of Sundance
Shaky foundations undermine this gingerbread cottage of a story.

Clare Dunne stars as a woman determined to build her own home in this Dublin-set drama, which she also co-wrote, in a collaboration with director Phyllida Lloyd ('Mamma Mia!').

Phyllida Lloyd, best known for her work in the London theater scene, and especially for directing the jukebox musical Mamma Mia! and its subsequent film adaptation as well as the Meryl Streep-starring Margaret Thatcher biopic The Iron Lady, scales down her canvas with the low-key, Dublin-set drama Herself.

Lloyd's key collaborator here is Clare Dunne, an Irish actor who's had key roles in Lloyd's all-women productions of Julius Caesar and Henry IV, starring as a working-class Dublin mother made homeless when she leaves her abusive husband. Dunne also co-wrote the screenplay with Malcolm Campbell (What Richard Did), but the more impressive contribution here is definitely her performance (alongside sturdy work from a cast made up of pros and newcomers), given the script is marbled with too many Anglo-Irish social realist clichés and stippled with melodrama.

It doesn't help that, thematically at least, Herself overlaps somewhat with Rosie, another Irish drama from 2018 directed by Paddy Breathnach and written by Roddy Doyle that deals with the chronic housing crisis in Dublin, a situation exacerbated by the country's superheated property market.

But where Rosie explored the desperation of homelessness with devastating understatement and the Kafka-esque bureaucracy that frustrates the protagonist's search for temporary accommodation each day, Herself's heroine Sandra Kelly (Dunne) discovers a more magical solution to a similar problem. When she finds herself stuck waiting for public housing for herself and her two young grade-school daughters (Molly McCann and Ruby Rose O'Hara, both adorbs) in a hotel room paid for by the city, she decides to work around the problem by raising money to build a house from scratch with a loan from the bank and help from some friends.

Lucky for Sandra, she has some extremely generous friends. Cranky but ultimately kindly older posh lady Peggy (the delicious Harriet Walter, recently seen in Succession), a widowed doctor for whom Sandra cleans house and helps out generally ever since Peggy broke her hip, is so inspired by Sandra's moxie she offers to give her a parcel of land in her own back garden big enough to take a modestly proportioned two-bedroomed cottage. Then, by some wondrous screenwriting coincidence, Sandra befriends a skilled builder, Aido (Conleth Hill), who agrees to help supervise her construction project practically for free just because he happens to know what a human turd Sandra's ex-husband Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson) is. And there's that endearing moxie.  

Before long, Sandra and Aido have assembled a motley crew to help with the project, one that includes Aido's adult son with Down syndrome, another mother from Sandra's daughters' school, and some friendly squatters who live with one of Sandra's co-workers at a cafe. This cheery rainbow alliance pulls together, despite a few testy moments, and Lloyd treats us to several cute musical montages as they all learn to dig foundations, pour concrete and hammer in nails straight.

In truth, that's what Lloyd is especially good at, cutting together twee moments and creating sunny mini-utopias where most problems can be solved by self-empowered women in sensible footwear given enough breaks for tea. The idyll is all so jolly that when the film swerves into misfortune in the final act, it feels not like a necessary dramatic corrective but just a dreary downer, like medicine there to stop the spoonfuls of sugar from going down so easily.

It doesn't help that Dunne has written for herself such a saintly, oddly dull character. A few more flaws might have made this more interesting, but at least there's Walter on hand to twinkle knowingly, delivering her lines in a crisp, pitch-perfect Irish accent, those stiletto sharp cheekbones cutting a dash through the treacle.

Production companies: Fis Eireann/Screen Ireland, BBC Films, BFI, Element Pictures, Merman Films
Cast: Clare Dunne, Harriet Walter, Molly McCann, Ruby Rose O'Hara, Conleth Hill, Cathy Belton, Rebecca O'Mara, Ericka Roe, Ian Lloyd Anderson, Sean Duggan, Aaron Lockhart, Anita Petry,
Director: Phyllida Lloyd
Screenwriters: Malcolm Campbell, Clare Dunne
Producers: Rory Gilmartin, Ed Guiney, Sharon Horgan

Executive producers: Andrew Lowe, Clelia Mountford, Rose Garnett, Phyllida Lloyd, Lesley McKimm, Mary Burke, Alison Thompson
Director of photography: Tom Comerford
Production designer: Tamara Conboy
Costume designer: Consolata Boyle
Editor: Rebecca Lloyd
Music: Natalie Holt
Music supervisor: Phil Canning
Casting: Louise Kiely
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)

Sales: Cornerstone Films

97 minutes