Phyllida Lloyd is most often described as the director of Mama Mia! but there’s a lot more to her than that. Take Herself, the latest in a line of strongly female-centred productions, including the Mrs Thatcher biopic The Iron Lady and the all-female Shakespeare productions of Julius Caesar, Henry IV and The Tempest at the Donmar Theatre in London, which drew raves from the critics, wild applause from audiences and loud harrumphs from the gammons.
The Shakespeares all gave top billing to Harriet Walter, and meaty roles to Clare Dunne. Here, Dunne is thrust into the lead (well, she did co-write) and Walter is a gracious supporting star in a story about one woman’s triumph over shitty circumstance.
It’s heartwarming in the extreme though it doesn’t look like it’s going that way as things kick off – literally – with young mum Sandra (Dunne) being stamped on and hideously abused by her husband Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson so convincing he’s going to struggle to shake off the reputational damage), the last in a long line of such events, we gather, but the one that prompts her to quit Gary and the family home.
With two kids in tow, Sandra is soon living out of a crappy room in an airport hotel. She’s not even allowed to use the front door, so wary are the management of being seen to be offering accommodation to welfare types.
Exhausted by her two jobs, one cleaning the house of a doctor (Walter) who’s broken her hip, the other in a bar where the landlord is all take and no give, Sandra inhabits a world familiar to the fans of Ken Loach – it’s tough at the bottom.
The swerve comes when Sandra stumbles across a YouTube video explaining how to build a decent home for very little money, and then the doctor comes across with the offer of a chunk of her garden to help Sandra realise her dream.
All Sandra needs now is people to help her… for nothing, or the occasional cold beer at the end of the day. And for the authorities not to discover what she’s about, because it’ll jeopardise her benefits status. And also for her husband not to find out, because he’s a vindictive bastard.
Herself pivots elegantly away from Loach – though Sandra’s band of merry helpers hold fast to his communitarianism – and into feelgood territory, and while the authorities never seem like that much of a threat, even when the legal wheels start to grind, the glowering Gary keeps the sense of threat high.
Lloyd replays the moment Gary stamps on Sandra several times to remind us what the stakes are, and to suggest that Sandra’s road ahead might still be rock-strewn.
Many of the support crew of builder’s mates Sandra assembles are so underused they’re barely more than names on a cast list – Dmitry Vinokurov as Dariusz and Mabel Chah as Yewande to name but two – but Conleth Hill gets a good shout as the actual honest-to-goodness builder Sandra meets in a builder’s merchant’s and who she inveigles into helping her.
What’s wrong with feelgood? Absolutely nothing. Nor with absolutely straightforward, straightahead film-making. There’s no added romance to complicate the story, no tricksiness with the cameras, no messing about with the chronology, this is – at some speed and streamlined to the point that, yes, some characters don’t get much of a look-in – Sandra’s story pure and simple.
It’s Clare Dunne’s first time out as a writer (with co-writer Malcolm Campbell, who co-wrote What Richard Did, another tale of Dublin life) and what a debut. It’s a great performance too – a human mix of the sensitive and the tough that’s entirely believeable. This film won’t work unless we were rooting for Sandra. And we are.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021