Synopsis: Struggling to provide her daughters with a safe, happy home, Sandra decides to build one – from scratch. Using all her ingenuity to make her ambitious dream a reality, Sandra draws together a community to lend a helping hand to build her house and ultimately recover her own sense of self.
Stars: Clare Dunne, Molly McCann, Ruby Rose O’Hara, Ian Lloyd Anderson, Shadaan Felfeli, Cathy Belton
Director: Phyllida Lloyd
Running Length: 97 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: All through November and December leading up to Christmas, I did something I never did before, I watched a whole bunch of Hallmark movies in all their holiday predictable glory. Maybe it was because this year I just needed something safe and comforting that wasn’t going to challenge me much during a stressful time of year but the movies just keep finding their way onto my DVR and I couldn’t stop watching them. Even now, nearly halfway though January, I’m still finishing them off and not the least bit tired of their harmless charm. In terms of quality of film, I have to say that for as much crap as these films have received over the years, a number of the ones I watched were quite decent and not the same silly dreck as others I have seen in the past. All in all, they were just fine films.
Watching the new Amazon Studios release Herself, I heard that “just fine” sentiment echoing around in my head a lot as well. While the movie has its good intentions, solid performances, engaging storyline, and is well-told by the filmmakers who obviously have invested an inkling of heart into the effort, there’s nothing that sets the movie truly apart from the crowd. For a movie that wants to push some emotional buttons in the audience, that just won’t do because ultimately, I felt that something more had to be done to go further and elevate it to a higher level than where it lands. Not every movie has to aspire to be better than what’s come before but when you put a spotlight on yourself and ask for that comparison, you better have something that actually makes you linger in the memory for some time after the credits are done.
When her abusive husband (Ian Lloyd Anderson) finally takes things too far, Sandra (Clare Dunne, Spider-Man: Far from Home, who also wrote the film) leaves him and soon finds herself homeless trying to raise two daughters on her own in Dublin. While she’s attempting to make ends meet by taking a job as a home aid to a doctor recovering from a broken hip (Harriet Walter, Rocketman) she thinks about how to create a new life and home for her young daughters (Molly McCann, Ruby Rose O’Hara). Then, an idea comes to her on a bus ride home and she brings it to the housing authority that has been paying for all three of them to stay in a hotel. Why not help her buy a piece of land so she can build a house? Ultimately, the loan she needs for the land and the house would be cheaper than what they’re paying for their hotel upkeep now. Unsurprisingly, she’s denied the solution to her current problem by an agency that can’t see a bigger picture presenting itself.
She’s not undeterred for long, though, because just like all great feel-good movies, Sandra benefits from having the right friends in the right place at the right time and soon she’s building her house in the most unlikely of places. As she gathers her resources for the house and a motley crew of workers to assist her in its creation, a dark shadow appears in the skies. Though he’s continued to see his children through court-appointed visits, her husband now wants the entire family to be together again. Yet the house is a secret from him because it’s Sandra’s chance to finally get away from him; the longer the house takes to build the harder it is to keep it out of the conversation. Leading to a series of dramatic climaxes and intense scenes that offset the good-natured charm offered in the first hour, Herself eventually turns into a standard drama symphony with the usual notes to play.
Let me be totally clear, Herself is a perfectly fine watch, it’s one I would recommend for Dunne’s leading performance and especially her scenes later in the film. Even if it’s these very scenes that are the most commonplace, Dunne sells them in a way that gives them a breath of fresh air. She can’t quite erase their familiarity, though, so the audience always is two or three steps ahead of the plot, up to and including its crescendo moment. The husband is charming enough when he is nice to lead you to believe he may have changed but Anderson does well having his true colors show just below the surface in almost every scene, proving to all of us he isn’t as good at hiding it as he thinks he is. It’s also worth it for Walter’s turn as a once-towering professional in her field that has been hampered by illness and personal tragedy in her life. I was worried the relationship would start to look like the one in Wild Rose which was more of a savior/lost lamb situation but Dunne and Walter make a nice team in that both are strong women who lean on each other as they walk forward.
Director Phyllida Lloyd is best known for creating the stage musical Mamma Mia!, directing the movie version, and producing its hugely popular sequel. While there’s music to be heard here (it must be noted the soundtrack is pretty dreadful, filled with songs that are so on the nose you practically want to wipe your TV with Kleenex), Lloyd is comfortable with the drama and lets the camera linger on some emotionally raw moments. Thankfully, abuse scenes are either shown in quick flashes or not at all, the memories are shown on the faces of the victims and that is illustrative enough. Her handling of the dramatic storyline feels more at ease than she was with The Iron Lady, yet it’s not as if you watch the movie and can tell what the director brought to the film. She has no signature style to speak of so you get the sense that anyone could have really directed this.
Truly, Herself was always going to face a steep climb because it’s a story that is oft-told. A battered wife packing up and leaving her no-good husband with her kids in tow and running into hard times trying to keep her children is something we’ve seen in books, TV, movies, songs, etc. There’s a curious lack of overall ambition to make the movie something more than what is on the surface and that is where I found myself disappointed overall. Dunne wrote a good script and turns in a strong performance along with Walter…that should be enough, but something’s missing from the final blueprint of Herself.