Rebuilding after domestic abuse

Wendy Lloyd watches 'Herself', a new film directed by Phyllida Lloyd.

Six months of Covid-19 (to date) has shone a spotlight on the continued crises of both domestic violence and housing. The presumption that home is a universal sanctuary available to all is naively presumptuous, whilst domestic abuse has risen dramatically during this time of increased confinement. Phyllida Lloyd’s Herself, then, is a timely release with its story of Sandra (Clare Dunne, also main co-writer), an Irish mother to two young children, struggling in an abusive relationship. 

When partner Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson) inflicts one beating too many, Sandra is forced to activate her ‘Black Widow’ plan, whereby her elder daughter retrieves a lunch box containing emergency information from the garden playhouse and runs for help. This sequence epitomises the complex vigilance of domestic abuse victims: pre-empting the worst, whilst remaining unable to escape the inevitability of that threat.

Providing for her daughters is Sandra’s priority as she navigates the courts and state housing. She juggles multiple jobs for employers who show minimal compassion. Not that Sandra, understandably shut off and unforthcoming as a domestic violence victim, offers much to prompt more sympathetic responses. She refuses, however, to settle for hellholes with sky high rents which are seemingly her only chance of escaping temporary accommodation. Here Herself efficiently communicates both the associated relentlessness of being constantly on the move, and the humiliation of hotels where management happily take government money, but won’t even let these desperate families use the main entrance. 

This housing shame is exacerbated by that thrown at her by the legal system. Despite the courts recognising the extent of Sandra’s injuries that led to her leaving the family home, her partner is supported in his attempt to paint Sandra as an unfit mother. When Sandra finally snaps and accuses the judge and the system of attacking her and ignoring how she was both the victim and the parent that took the children away from abuse (which one daughter witnessed), we see a powerful encapsulation of how the legal system fails and undermines domestic abuse victims via procedures that actively ignore context and compartmentalise interrelated issues. 

Yet the film moves beyond harsh social reality when, despite everything, Sandra finds hope. Inspired by her daughters’ childish LEGO houses and the ancient Irish tale of St Brigid’s magic cloak, Sandra researches self-build homes online. Naturally, the housing office is completely ‘computer says no’ about her proposal for a £35,000 loan for the project. Nonetheless, Peggy (Harriet Walker), whose house Sandra cleans and who is, until this point, seemingly dismissive of Sandra, is suddenly offering the money and providing the land in her sizeable back garden. This clunks as a slightly uncomfortable cinematic volte face as we quickly learn lots of family back story to justify Peggy’s generosity. There’s additionally a touch of the middle-class-saviour here too, but perhaps that’s the point: the neoliberal system is stacked against Sandra; there is no functioning safety net, just individuals like Peggy with means to help others, or not.

Regardless, Sandra’s primal push to retrieve some agency in her life via her self-build project thus initiates an empowering and topical storyline, with Herself thereby exploring the power of regaining control, and how reaching out to others – however difficult – is more important than ever. That being said, this helping-one-another storyline fails to fully convince regarding the motivations of random characters who make huge commitments to assist with Sandra’s project. Indeed, a fellow parent at school, whom Sandra essentially snubs, willingly turns up on site with no explanation. One can’t fault Dunne’s performance however, which is sympathetic throughout.

Ultimately Herself is no fairy tale: there is no ‘rags to riches’ final act for Sandra. But there is an important portrayal of how a downtrodden individual, who might be expected to have zero hope for a better life whilst striving to survive, can still resist and – literally – rebuild. Indeed, it’s important that the grammar of cinema doesn’t always conflate social realism with inevitable misery. Howeverwhilst Herself incorporates hope for us all: to think bigger, to push beyond the systems that fail us, and to ask for help, it is stark in its message that those neglecting our social systems need to think bigger – and better - too. 

- Reviewed by Wendy Lloyd who is a film critic, psychology graduate and current MSc student at LSE.

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