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Film asks if after trauma, can building a house help rebuild your life?

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The film Herself tries to balance between a tale of abuse and an uplifting story of overcoming the odds. Most of the time it does it well, writes Sarah Bates
Issue 2772
Sandra “finds herself” through the experience of building a house
Sandra “finds herself” through the experience of building a house

Herself isn’t quite the ­sentimental guff promised by the trailer.

Co-written and starring Clare Dunne, Sandra is desperately trying to rebuild her life after fleeing domestic violence at the hands of her ­ex‑­husband Gary.

She survives one final brutal attack, but what does the aftermath look like? Sandra is living in a hotel, working two jobs and driving her kids half way across Dublin to get them to school.

This seems hard enough, but Herself takes time to show the grim drudgery of it all.

She can’t enter the hotel’s main entrance and use the lift, but instead has to scuttle in through the back doors and walk up the stairs.

That applies even if she’s hauling in her food shopping, even if she’s ­carrying a sleeping child.


Strangely little is revealed about Sandra throughout the film, so we only see the bundle of stress she’s become.

Sandra is facing the prospect of ­staying at the hotel for years and seizes on the idea of starting a self‑build project.

This is where Herself is generally thoughtful and engaging but at times sails a little close to easy ­sentimentality for comfort.

The montages of foundations being laid and planks of wood sawn are a bit much. But other parts are quite sweet.

Sandra says it’s the first time in many years she’s been allowed to have friends at all.

She wants help constructing a house, and a group of willing ­volunteers seemingly appear out of nowhere and pitch in to help.

She needs a bit of land, and she’s immediately gifted a piece of prime real estate.

While the solutions to Sandra’s ­situation stretch belief, the real life context is all too believable.

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The film manages to steer clear of collapsing into sentimentality by drawing us back to the reality of the aftermath of her horror.

So we see her two young ­children complete visits to their menacing father. Some courtroom scenes, where Sandra takes on a system that attempts to blame her, are the most compelling.

I can see what the film is getting at. But it’s a little trite to say that Sandra “finds herself” through the experience of building this house.

Herself has to achieve a difficult balancing act between a miserable tale of abuse and a cheerful ­uplifting story about overcoming the odds. Most of the time, it does this well.

Obviously, Herself offers no real solutions to the many layers in which Sandra is left damaged by the social security system and traumatised by the individuals within her life.

But then again, it’s not meant to.

And despite all the promises of a neat ending, there’s no easy conclusion for Sandra, Gary, or the girls. The threat of the long term impacts of abuse continue to linger on despite all her best efforts.

Herself, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, is in cinemas now and on Amazon Prime video

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