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  Herself Building Confidence
Year: 2020
Director: Phyllida Lloyd
Stars: Clare Dunne, Harriet Walter, Conleth Hill, Ian Lloyd Anderson, Ruby Rose O'Hara, Molly McCann, Cathy Belton, Ericka Roe, Anita Petry, Lorcan Cranitch, Tina Kellegher, Donking Rongavilla, Sean Duggan, Rebecca O'Mara, Danmiel Ryan, Dimtry Vinokurov
Genre: DramaBuy from Amazon
Rating:  8 (from 1 vote)
Review: One day, Sandra Kelly (Clare Dunne) knew she had to get out. She had known this for some time, as her husband Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson) grew ever more abusive, and was planning to leave with her two young daughters Molly (Molly McCann) and Emma (Ruby Rose O'Hara) but he outfoxed her and found the money she had stashed to help. Emma rushed off with a message for anyone with a phone to call the police, but it was too late for Sandra, who was badly beaten, including having her hand badly broken when Gary stamped on it. Now she and her girls are existing in a limbo of dead end jobs and hotel accommodation...

And yet, the girls still have to see their abusive father at the weekend; he hasn't actually abused them, only Sandra, but he can be short with them and what we don't know at the beginning but are later privy to through flashbacks is why the youngest is increasingly reluctant to engage with him. The shockwaves that domestic violence cause were not softpedalled here, as it was clear Sandra was suffering post-traumatic stress disorder and was not getting the help she needed, be that a place to feel secure or something to help her cope with her terror that Gary could stage a return to her life. It's bad enough she has to drop off the kids at his house.

Actually his parents' house, where he has been living as a result of his punishment, and we learn he is receiving counselling to manage his anger, but can see it is seeping through into his behaviour as microaggressions and even losing his temper. Our heart goes out to Sandra and her daughters, and star/writer Clare Dunne made sure we were well aware this was not an isolated case, and the system was more likely to punish wives trying to escape the clutches of their hateful partners. Not because it was actively evil, but because it was unable to tackle the issues that leaving a violent husband can bring about, stranding the victims in a tension-filled nowhere land.

Now, if this film had been all doom and gloom, it would have been such a tough watch that you cannot imagine many wanting to sit through it for long. However, Sandra has a fairy godmother in the shape of Peggy (Harriet Walter), the disabled ex-GP she does the cleaning for, and Peggy suggests something to her that may make everything turn out for the best at long last. Sandra has been researching a method of escaping the benefits trap as far as her house goes, and hits upon the idea of building her own: not such a daft idea, as it is something plenty of people try if they have the funds and time to make that dream come true. Thus a wish-fulfilment element shines into Herself, where if you wish hard enough you can get what you want.

On the other hand, that grit is not about to go away any time soon, yet what could have been crunching gear changes were guided by director Phyllida Lloyd into the kind of lurches that anyone in a state of crisis would recognise, that "Oh, great, what now?!" greeting you when you wonder if it were not for bad luck, you would have no luck at all. In fact, the film itself suffered that too, as it was badly distributed, not because of mismanagement, but thanks to the pandemic sabotaging the chance to see it and build momentum for possible awards contention. It did pick up some plaudits, but unlike the director's other two megahits this was a far smaller production, both in scale and in the overall influence it had. That said, those who did catch it were largely highly impressed as it did not come across as implausible as it might have in other hands, mainly due to the heartfelt performances from Dunne and her supporting cast, including Conleth Hill as the builder who takes pity on her and sums up the optimism that a community can bring to a lost soul. The ending was bittersweet, but for all the bad we saw here, we saw the best of people too. Music by Natalie Holt.

[Now available on Blu-ray and digital from Picture House.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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