That trusty tradition of uplifting British films in which a group of strangers team up to achieve something against the odds gets an unlikely addition in the inspiring, if familiar-feeling Herself. These quixotic quests – think Pride’s team-up of LGBTQ+ campaigners and Welsh miners, or The Full Monty’s Chippendales-like steel workers – usually bury a seam of social-realist grit in a ton of uplifting montages and cheery bantz. Here, the formula is flipped. Instead of punch-the-air moments, its DIY spirit is grounded in desperation. It’s all about escape, not escapism.
The film’s greatest strength is newcomer Clare Dunne, who came up with the story and co-wrote the screenplay, and is mesmerising as an abused woman struggling to start afresh and make a home – literally – for her two daughters. Dunne was inspired by the story of a friend who was left homeless when she split from her partner, and she plays a version of that character: a strong-willed but struggling Dubliner called Sandra who has left her violently abusive husband (Ian Lloyd Anderson, a believable mix of nasty and needy).
She cleans the house of well-to-do, physically ailing doctor Peggy O’Toole – the kind of tartly matter-of-fact but hugely endearing character only Harriet Walter could play – to make ends meet. The state is of minimal help, offering only temporary digs at the airport and leaving Sandra’s girls having to scratch out fun in car parks. Then a chance discovery of a YouTube video alerts her to the fact that, for €35,000, she can build her own home and be free of her brutal ex for good. But where can she get the money and the plot of land? Paging Dr O’Toole...
Director Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia!) keeps Sandra’s doggedness and enterprising spirit in tight focus, though she isn’t above throwing in the odd cheesy montage – the music cues here don’t always land – as she and a motley crew of volunteers led by Conleth Hill’s kindly foreman get to work. There’s at least one swooning shot of a sweaty Sandra glugging down a bottle of water in the manner of one of those mid-’90s Diet Coke ads. More effective are short, sharp flashbacks to scenes of abuse that effectively dial you firmly into her PTSD-haunted mindset.
But as a study of the obstacles a woman has to overcome to move past a toxic relationship, Herself is guaranteed to put fire in your belly. ‘Ask better questions,’ Sandra snaps as a judge probes her for culpability as her monstrous, bullying ex sits across the courtroom. This involving drama always asks the right questions: namely, what more can society do to make sure that women like her don’t have to do it all by themselves.
In UK cinemas Sep 10.