When a housing authority can’t provide the residence you need, why not build one yourself? The option obviously isn’t widely available. But a concatenation of circumstances, and the kindness of an old family friend, gives Sandra, a mom fleeing an abusive husband, the chance to do just that in “Herself.”
Clare Dunne, who co-wrote the screenplay with Malcolm Campbell, plays Sandra, who leaves her monstrously violent spouse, Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson), taking her two young girls. Early on, the movie, set in Ireland, has a bit of a Ken Loach vibe, as the hard-working Sandra negotiates various unhelpful bureaucracies trying to set up a new domestic situation.
The idea of building her own home is born out of some sessions with the computer search engine. The land and some moral support come from an aged woman Sandra looks after.
A trip to the hardware store proves that the internet doesn’t give you all the instructions you need for such an ambitious undertaking as house-building. And an interaction with a rude clerk introduces her to an initially reluctant ally, a construction man, Aido (Conleth Hill), who’s acquainted with Gary. Not in a pleasant way. His sympathy for Sandra compels the overworked fellow to lend her a hand.
Then it’s “It Takes a Village” time as Sandra’s friends and neighbors pitch in. Mini-montages of concrete-pouring and beam-raising ensue, accompanied by pop songs like Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings’ “New Shoes” and the David Guetta/Sia collaboration “Titanium.” The director, Phyllida Lloyd, who primarily works in theater, did oversee both the stage and film versions of “Mamma Mia!” after all.
The presence of the resentful Gary looms, and Anderson’s performance makes the looming register. Even when he crouches down by Sandra’s car window to tell her he’s getting counseling, Gary exudes menace. He’s clearly poised to strike, and when he senses an opportunity, he does. And as the bad dominoes start to fall, Sandra starts coming apart.
As a character, Sandra hasn’t a huge amount of depth — she’s mostly defined by traits, like anger and resilience. But that’s part of the movie’s point; her state is something to which the world has ground her down. And after a while the movie itself, for all its sporadically sunny moments, looks like it’s not going to let up on her. This is a feminist movie with a Sisyphean dimension that’s disquietingly universal.
Rated R for language and violence. Running time: 1 hour 37 minutes. In theaters. Please consult the guidelines outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before watching movies inside theaters.