An abused Dublin woman with two daughters decides that it's time to take matters into her own hands in Herself, a narrow-gauged drama about women for whom an over-burdened social system can't provide stability.
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia), Herself strives to be inspirational without sacrificing itself on a feel-good altar -- more or less.
Clare Dunne portrays Sandra, a mother who desperately wants to establish her independence. Once Sandra leaves her physically abusive husband (Ian Lloyd Anderson), she finds herself and her two daughters assigned to a single hotel room. Sorry, a social services worker tells her. No other housing options are available.
To add an element of humiliation to an already desperate situation, the hotel management insists that Sandra and her children (Molly McCann and Ruby Rose O'Hara) enter through the backdoor. The sight of state-sponsored guests might disturb the paying customers.
Inspiration comes from an unexpected quarter. Sandra sees a video about building one's own home. An idea is implanted. Of course, obstacles abound. Sandra can't afford land or the materials required to erect even a modest DIY structure.
Enter contrivance: Sandra works as a household helper for Peggy (Harriet Walter), a physician who has been hobbled by a broken hip. Although Peggy doesn't seem like the most generous of spirits, she offers Sandra land on which to build and also agrees to loan her the money to finance the home.
Ever resourceful, Sandra, who also works clearing tables at a local bar, assembles a ragtag building team led by a real builder (Conleth Hill). Hill's Aldo reluctantly volunteers to oversee a crew with little construction experience.
Dunne's performance revolves around Sandra's heavily taxed cooking skills: She must handle a major project, earn her living, tend to two daughters, and fend off a husband who claims he'll reform in order to reunite with her.
The husband eventually takes the matter to court, which gives Sandra an opportunity to make a heartfelt speech about how the legal system has treated her -- and, by extension, a lot of other struggling women.
When the house is complete, we feel a sense of unease; the presence of Sandra's former husband promises that a totally happy ending may not be possible.
As is the case with many women like Sandra, it's difficult to draw a line marking the point where woe fades and a promising future blossoms. That understanding gives Herself its bite.