A lot has been written about how Covid delays have affected the releases of hugely budgeted films featuring flying robots. Just as interesting is what a lengthy delay will do for perceptions of more intimate films addressing less fantastical socio-political concerns.
Last week we finally saw Cathy Brady’s Wildfire, a film in which Brexit offered background noise. Now, more than 17 months after its buzzy Sundance premiere, Phyllida Lloyd’s Herself, much concerned with the Irish housing crisis, goes before masked viewers.
A few critics have, with justification, argued that the film speaks indirectly to the stress put on families during the Covid convulsions. What is more striking — and depressing — is what has not changed. Clare Dunne, who co-writes and stars in an irresistible, if occasionally implausible, hankie-dampener, would, even if it stripped her film of some relevance, have hoped for pressures to ease on househunters. Such is not the case. The headlines from which Herself were ripped are still being published.
Herself reminds us of the massive queues outside properties that few ordinary working people can afford
The film is a reasonably well integrated blend of hard realism and gentle fantasy. The former Loachian strain is all too believable. Sandra (Dunne), mother of two daughters, is trapped in an abusive relationship with the volatile, manipulative Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson). “You all know what he did to me,” she says to a court late in the film. “Yet you still bring me in here and ask me questions like why didn’t you leave him? But you never ask why didn’t he stop?”
Lloyd makes something genuinely nightmarish of the worst attacks, but Dunne's creased vulnerability — she does fear as effectively as Olivia Colman in Paddy Considine's great Tyrannosaur — keeps us tethered to waking reality. Even if such a victim does escape, where is she to go? Herself reminds us of the massive queues outside properties that few ordinary working people can afford.
The film has a suggestion. Why not build your own house? You just find €35,000, persuade a wealthy pal to give you a patch of land and then happen upon a merry, diverse gang of affordable coworkers. What’s the problem?
This is where a bit of fantasy comes in. Dunne is not pretending this option is a feasible one for most home seekers. Inspirational wish-fulfilment has always been an energy in the movie economy and it successfully drives the warmer stream in a sometimes unsettling film. The doctor for whom Clare cares (the always excellent Harriet Walter) happens upon her scheme and offers her space at the bottom of the garden. A friendly contractor (welcome on board, Conleth Hill) gathers together an enthusiastic team and, like the pals in a Cliff Richard musical, they decide to "do the show right here".
It feels as if it is saying a lot to say this is easily Lloyd's best film. After all, she directed Meryl Streep to an Oscar in The Iron Lady and, with Mamma Mia!, made one of the most successful British films of the century. For the first time, however, the theatre director seems properly in control of the medium. The actors work together with a naturalness you'd expect from a long-established company. Tom Comerford, among our busiest cinematographers, spreads a damp ambience across both the handsome and less lovely parts of the capital. This is a strong crew.
Herself will, nonetheless, inevitably be viewed as Dunne's baby. Her central performance speaks of the need to appear strong when poised on an edge between two equally terrifying abysses. Dunne's script, co-written with Malcolm Campbell, packs too much plot in its final 10 minutes, but it hits the emotional beats with gusto throughout.
It was, when it was shot two years ago, an effective comment on an absurd crisis. Sadly, it is still that.
Released on September 10th