Content warning: Domestic violence
“Black widow,” whispers Sandra (Clare Dunne) to her daughter Emma (Ruby Rose O’Hara) in the devastating opening scene to “Herself.” It’s a code phrase that prompts Emma to run to the nearby corner store with a pre-made safety box that states “Call 911. My life is in danger. Sandra.” The chilling phrase eventually completes a full circle in the film, recurring at its climax to demonstrate the gut-wrenching range of violence that survivors face, even when they leave their abuser.
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd (“Mamma Mia!,” “The Iron Lady”), “Herself” is adapted from a screenplay by Malcolm Campbell and Dunne, the film’s star. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2020 and is now available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
“Herself” opens with Dublin mother Sandra dancing with her two young daughters, Emma and Molly (Molly McCann), in their kitchen. Sandra’s demeanor immediately shifts upon the arrival of her husband, Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson), as he tells the girls to go play outside. Sandra knows her husband is about to hurt her, and she signals for Emma to go get help. In a scene that continuously flashes across the screen throughout the film, Gary beats Sandra, severely damaging her arm for attempting to leave him.
The plot picks back up with Sandra and her daughters moving into government-provided housing. Although Sandra is now safe, she struggles to care for her children, look for permanent housing and maintain shared custody with her abusive ex-husband. The remainder of the plot focuses primarily on Sandra’s decision to build herself a home and the community of people who rally together to help her.
“Herself” answers the rarely asked — or answered — question: What happens to survivors when they leave? Dunne gives a phenomenal performance as Sandra, conveying her everyday sense of anxiety and resilience with the utmost care. One of the most moving scenes of the film involves Sandra’s defiant defense of herself in court, shaming the judge who asks her, “Is there a reason you didn’t leave sooner?” Sandra boldly condemns a legal system that seems set against survivors, asking the judge why she doesn’t ask Gary why he abused her.
Despite brilliant moments such as these, the film’s focus upon a single moment in time sacrifices character development for plot. The only mention of Sandra’s previous life with Gary is when she breaks down and states, “I don’t miss him, I miss who he was.” The moment is a rare and raw view into their relationship, but it’s without context, as the audience has only ever seen Gary be aggressive or manipulative. Although the film is meant to be a snapshot of Sandra’s life, the lack of details concerning her past — and eventually, her future — keeps the audience forever at arm’s length.
The cast of “Herself” does a superb job with what they are given, but unfortunately, many characters fall flat due to a lack of context and depth. Sandra’s employer Peggy (Harriet Walter), a no-nonsense, kindhearted doctor, provides Sandra with the land and funds to build her house. She explains that Sandra’s mother helped her through a hard time, but she never elaborates further. Loose plotlines such as these create characters that seem to only exist within this snapshot of Sandra’s life, limiting the film’s believability.
“Herself” highlights the many struggles that women who survive domestic abuse face, even if they manage to escape their abuser. The poignancy of the narrative leaves the audience wanting to know more, so its lack of depth is frustrating. But overall, “Herself” is a heartwarming tale of resilience and community that showcases how coming together and supporting one another can create something beautiful.