Brilliant 'Herself' delicately balances optimism with brutal realities of domestic abuse
"Herself" -- ★ ★ ★ ★
Phyllida Lloyd's domestic drama "Herself" believes in the essential goodness of the common person, and the inevitable triumph of honesty and generosity over selfishness, greed and deceit.
You could make a case that "Herself" qualifies as an Irish variation of a Frank Capra classic, for it combines optimistic humanism with unflinching depictions of its darker side, here the blunt, ugly realism of domestic abuse, along with the emotional and psychological trauma caused by it.
The story hinges on a young Dublin mother and wife named Sandra Kelly (played with wounded authenticity by co-screenwriter Clare Dunne), a real-world Wonder Woman who must master the power of "telling the truth ... in the right tone of voice" if she wants to improve her life and the lives of her two little girls, Emma and Molly (preciously played by Ruby Rose O'Hara and Molly McCann).
Sandra has what she claims to be a birthmark under her left eye, a darkened smear resembling a mean black-and-blue bruise. It remains a permanent reminder of the abuse suffered at the hands and boots of her control-freak husband Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson).
"Herself" begins with a joyous moment in which Sandra and her daughters are having fun, until Dad walks in, and Sandra's immediate shift to a wary tone foreshadows what is about to occur.
She gives Emma her lunchbox and tells her "Operation Black Widow."
Emma leaves, but does not go to school. She runs to a nearby merchant and shows him the lunchbox with this message inside: "My life is in danger" -- with a plea to call the police.
We witness most of the domestic battery in flashback glimpses during Sandra's sudden panic attacks, terrifying times when she loses her ability to breathe, and we hear her heart pounding in heavy horror movie mode.
It's just the beginning of the abuse and neglect of Sandra, and of other Irish women in her situation, moved into temporary housing at an airport hotel where management forces them to use back doors, so paying customers won't be offended by seeing poor people.
Here, "temporary housing" might be incorrect, because Sandra goes on a three-year waiting list for more permanent social housing digs.
Meanwhile, Sandra continues to work two jobs -- with a painful crushed hand -- for a local bar and for an aging doctor, Peggy O'Toole (Harriet Walter), recovering from a broken hip.
One day, Peggy notices that Sandra has been looking at build-it-yourself house kits on her computer. She makes Sandra an extraordinary proposal: She will give Sandra a plot of land in her backyard and loan her the money to build her house.
Now, all Sandra needs to do is actually build it.
"Herself" delves into the sort of heartfelt community-minded feature you might catch on the HGTV channel, but it never forgets Anderson's volatile Gary, going through the reliable abusive husband rituals of putting on the charm, buying his daughters gifts, pleading for another chance and playing the economic card, all manipulative strategies transparent to everyone but himself.
Oh, and apparently to the judge hearing the Kellys' custody case. She asks Sandra why Gary has been always on time and she (with two jobs and a smashed hand) has not, unknowingly creating another layer of systemic discrimination against the economically challenged class.
Sandra answers her with a profound observation: "Ask better questions."
Lloyd, who directed the smash jukebox musical "Mamma Mia!" and the historical drama "The Iron Lady" (earning Meryl Streep another Oscar), imbues "Herself" with a raw honesty that permeates every frame.
She pulls off a virtual miracle by presenting one of Hollywood's cheesiest, laziest cliches -- the spontaneous pop-song group singalong -- as an organically occurring experience so affecting that you might want to hum along.
Capra would approve.
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Starring: Clare Dunne, Harriet Walter, Ian Lloyd Anderson
Directed by: Phyllida Lloyd
Other: An Amazon Studios release. On Amazon Prime Video. Rated R for violence, language. 87 minutes