Saturday 4 September 2021

DIY SOS: "Herself"

Theatre director Phyllida Lloyd's transfer from stage to screen has been less than wholly persuasive. 2008's Mamma Mia!, amateur hour in the cocktail lounge, made major bank without ever threatening, not even for a minute, to be any good; she chased it with 2011's The Iron Lady, that desiccated Thatcher biopic that helped define British cinema's direction of travel over the following decade. In the opening moments of her third feature Herself, Lloyd serves notice that she will be operating in a far less celebratory mode via a tonal rupture in the Ken Loach manner. Single mum Sandra (co-writer Clare Dunne, on whose story the film is based) is introduced dancing round her kitchen to Sia's "Chandelier", kids in tow; enter stage right an aggrieved ex - the father of those children - who proceeds to punch and kick the bejeezus out of her. What the film gets right, as it follows Sandra through the attack's aftermath and out into the pell-mell of 21st century Ireland, is how even without her ex tailing her, everything's a rush, a dash, a panic for this woman. Sandra has too many jobs to work; she has the kids to pick up; with her sanctuary breached, she scrambles to find new accommodation before night falls. Even as a social worker offers consolation ("it's temporary, only temporary"), we're left thinking this is no sustainable way to live. The solution this practical woman arrives at, on the way to her wits' end, is to build her own house: that title represents both who Dunne was/Dunne-as-Sandra is (a standalone, a possible model of self-sufficiency) and how she went about it.

Despite that early beatdown, then, this is a story designed to uplift: we are invited to cheer the rebuilding of a life in parallel with the construction of a fortress sturdy enough to repel any intruders. Given the slender 90-minute running time, we wonder when the first montage sequence will kick in; this, it transpires, won't be the last of the shortcuts the film takes to get us to its happy place. This story trails tangled questions of money, access and opportunity, none of which Lloyd's film is prepared to acknowledge, let alone address. I suspect even Dunne herself would admit her story had its fair share of good luck to set alongside its misfortune: in this telling, it entails assists from the woman Sandra cared for, Peggy (Harriet Walter), who just happened to have a spare acre in her back garden, and a friendly builder, Aido (Conleth Hill), who turns up on Day One with a team of hired and helpful hands. But who's paying? If the reconstruction that follows never convinces especially, it's because the film is sketchy (and sometimes outright evasive) on the matter of collateral; at no point do we learn how Sandra can afford nailguns and MDF. What Lloyd ends up building is a very flimsy halfway house, unsanded in some places, overly polished in others. Nothing quite fits together: after putting us through a feelgood dancealong to B*witched's "C'est La Vie" (adjust any expectations accordingly), the final third is a dour courtroom drama that threw me back onto the street feeling broadly as gloomy as I did during that early bout of domestic violence. Dunne gives a sympathetic performance: even as the film wobbles, she never loses us. Yet what's been patched up around her has a naggingly complacent feel, more so in a moment when the state is prescribing "personal responsibility" as a cure for all ills, even a virus. I could easily imagine one of The Iron Lady's political descendants scuttling out of a matinee showing at the Maidenhead Odeon with one of those sly smiles Tories typically plaster on in advance of snipping another social safety net. See, prole: if Sandra did this, why can't you?

Herself opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

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