★★★★☆

A Dublin-set kitchen sink drama for the modern era, Phyllida Lloyd’s strong third feature, Herself, is as much an indictment of the grinding bureaucracy failing to house and protect women abused at the hands of their partners, as it is the men who inflict such despicable physical and psychological trauma.

Fans of social realism will be drawn to The Iron Lady and Mamma Mia! director’s latest film. It shares echoes of Leigh or Loach but avoids all-out desolation. And though a departure from the style and substance of Lloyd’s former projects, it shares the common ties of an exceptional female lead, flanked by a gifted ensemble cast. Clare Dunne (who spearheads the film superbly with a knife-edge performance of raw ferocity and fragility) plays Sandra, who after many years of living in fear of her violent husband, Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson), finally leaves.

The brutal altercation that prompts this escape is witnessed by one of her daughters just as the other runs to the corner shop with a note for the owner to call the Guards. Internal flashbacks of this horrific moment will replay in Sandra’s mind, to the panic-stricken thumping of blood pumping in her ears, at several points as its shockwaves persist. Cinematographer Tom Comerford’s initially shaky, roaming camerawork speaks to her petrified state of mind as daily life – the school run, working two jobs and sticking to weekend visits with dad – must go on, even if she and the girls are forced to live in an airport hotel.

Taking to it with a commendable sense of adventure, though each of them showing signs of confusion and trauma themselves, the effect of this change of circumstances for sisters Emma and Molly is well handled by Lloyd. Thanks in large part to the tremendous performances given by Ruby Rose O’Hara and Molly McCann as the young siblings. Herself explores the extent to which the children of a broken home are used as pawns by sparring exes and somewhat overlooked by a court system short of both humanity and a grip on reality.

“Was there a reason you didn’t leave sooner?” a tone-deaf judge will ask late on in the film, demonstrating a lack of compassion and understanding of Sandra’s experience, and by extension the experience of many more. Avoiding too many cliches of making a house a home, it is a roof over their heads that is needed. With a three year wait list for council housing to contend with, Sandra takes matters into her own hands and decides to build her own. “Nobody does anything for nothing in this country,” says contractor Aido (Conleth Hill, on fine form), though he will soon be proven wrong.

A gift of land by Peggy (a wonderfully cantankerous, waspish Harriet Walter who swiftly mellows), whose house Sandra cleans, is a convenient but passable narrative segue. And joined by Aido, his son Francis (Daniel Ryan), who has Down’s Syndrome, and a band of willing volunteers, construction soon gets going. Although seeing Conleth Hill break into a building site song and dance routine would be a novelty, the musical montages of progress being made on the house are reigned in before becoming overly twee. 

Moments that veer a little too closely to the saccharine are drawn back to a very harsh reality late on, but Lloyd does well to balance the rough with the smooth throughout. Herself champions women supporting one another in the face of adversity, through shared knowledge and experience and the film is to be applauded for doing so. The strength that the multi-generational female cast possesses, in overcoming the challenges and injustices put in their way is as true in the film industry as it is onscreen here. Furthermore, Herself shows that a collective of people of many different nationalities and walks of life can come together to achieve something remarkable, and we need that kind of message of hope and reconstruction now more than ever.

The BFI London Film Festival 2020 takes place from 7-18 October. bfi.org.uk/london-film-festival

Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63