In Brief: A very good film from the director of Mamma Mia! This Irish film — however — covers a very heavy subject. Or to put it another way, Mamma Mia! it ain’t.
A normal January has studios releasing what I call marginal quality films. Many are dumb romantic comedies or other types of limited audience movies. As an example, actors with a following like Liam Neeson see their films released around this time of year.
His movies do very well. Other marginal flicks do not but they do well enough at the box office for the producers to turn a profit.
Marginal movie releases continue through mid-February and sometimes into March. January also sees movies with award possibilities, or those that have serious income potential for studios, getting an expanded release and going into more theaters.
As we all know, this is not a normal January.
Studios have been releasing mid and lower-level movies since COVID hit in March of last year. The big guns — movies that are incredibly expensive to produce — remain silent. They will likely remain silent until the U.S. reaches herd immunity and things reopen.
For a lot of moviegoers this is torture. Critics haven’t like it much either but it has led to some interesting movie watching. The latest is a terrific art house film from Ireland. It did very well overseas and picked up some prestigious festival awards.
Herself casts Clare Dunne as Sandra. She’s trapped in a dangerous marriage and has been severely beaten by her husband. Sandra and her two daughters flee and find themselves in Ireland’s welfare system and pretty much stuck. Then Sandra sees a website video on building an inexpensive house. It starts the wheels turning.
Can she build one and escape a welfare system that is a trap of a different kind?
With the help of a kind employer, a contractor who is just as kind, and a few friends and acquaintances, Sandra’s dream house begins to take shape. Along with the home Sandra also sees new possibilities and hope for a better life and better lives for her children.
Films exploring the horrifying subject of spousal abuse are not uncommon. They manage to get you emotionally involved but never quite paint an accurate picture of how an impersonal welfare system can be a snare of a different kind for a battered woman and her children.
Herself is loaded with positives and it starts with excellent casting from director Phyllida Lloyd. Surrounding Dunne with outstanding supporting actors and acting helps forgive a whole lot of “oh-come-on-now” moments.
Much of that can be credited to Dunne who is also listed as a co-writer. She is so invested in Sandra that she becomes the character. It leads to an exceptional performance that — in turn — impacts the acting of her costars.
You’ll also love how Lloyd — who directed Mamma Mia! — keeps her movie moving. There are no slow spots, no unnecessary scenes. It is exactly what it needs to be; no more, no less. My only complaint is Lloyd’s choice of music. Considering the seriousness of the subject and the intensity of the plot, some of the songs she includes don’t really fit and some of the movie’s score seems a bit off.
It’s a minor criticism.
Herself is a movie about a woman in turmoil who is facing drastic change. Such a plot demands a good villain, character confusion and positive people who are — in places — totally unrealistic and often unbelievable.
Get past that and Herself is a very good movie.
Director: Phyllida Lloyd
Stars: Clare Dunne, Conleth Hill, Harriet Walter, Molly McCann, Ruby Rose O’Hara, Ian Lloyd Anderson, Cathy Belton, Antia Petry
Rated R for mature themes, language and violence. As noted at the beginning, Mamma Mia! this isn’t but director Phyllidia Lloyd and co-writer and star, Clare Dunne give us a realistic view of spousal abuse and how one woman overcomes. In spite of the too-good-to-be-true scenes, this is a good one. Give it a 4 1/2 on the Friday Flicks with Gary o to 5 scale.
You can see Herself on Amazon Prime.
Gary Wolcott has been reviewing movies on radio, television and newspaper since 1990. He believes — and this is an estimate only — that he’s seen something close to 10,000 movies in his lifetime. Gary is a lifelong fan of films and catches a couple of hundred movies a year. He believes movies ought to be seen on the big screen and not on the small screen in your living room or family room. While he loves movies, he also says reviewing film can be a real sacrifice and that he sees many movies so you don’t have to.
He is one of KXL 101.1 FM’s film critics and joined the news staff in 2014. Gary is also the film critic for Tri-Cities, Washington’s Tri-City Herald.