After leaving her abusive husband, Sandra is left living in a hotel room with her two daughters and facing a life with little options. That is until she decides to build her own home.
Whilst this story could feel mundane in someone else’s hands, writer’s Malcolm Campbell and Clare Dunne craft a moving and emotionally charged story. The decision to focus not on the abuse itself, but the aftermath of the trauma, provides a deeper insight into the long-lasting impact the violence has. Though there is some violence shown on screen, it is handled tastefully, and often shown in disjointed flashback, never gratuitous or overpowering.
As well as writing the film, Dunne also plays Sandra – a woman who both feels like a shell of her former self, and a force to be reckoned with. It’s refreshing to see such a complex and flawed female character in a lead role. She’s in no way a perfect mother but she will go to the ends of the earth to protect her girls. Likewise, as much as she is determined, she’s no stranger to emotional breakdowns, swear words and screaming tantrums. She feels real, lived in, tangible.
The highlight of the film is the developing relationship between Sandra and matriarchal mentor figure Peggy. Harriet Walter gives an impeccable performance (when doesn’t she) and is the straight-talking crutch that Sandra needs to learn to lean on. Both women keep the pace and tone exactly right, and it’s clear that director Phyllida Lloyd trusted her cast to steer this story.
In fact, the whole cast shines. Child actors Molly and Ruby steal scenes and feel like they could have walked out of any Irish home straight on to the set. Abusive ex-husband Gary (played by Dublin Old School’s Ian Lloyd Anderson) is just the right amount of menacing, and his appearances are used sparingly, but his presence is always felt. A crew of mismatched characters end up filling Sandra’s world in an attempt to help her achieve her dream of having a safe place for her family.
It’s been a while since a film has left me feeling so empowered and yet so utterly heartbroken, and there were definitely tears in my eyes during the films closing act. Lloyd and team have made a truly real and emotional piece of cinema that will touch all kinds of audiences.
You can find out more about where it is available to watch as part of this years film festival here: https://www.bfi.org.uk/london-film-festival/screenings/herself