Herself is a tale of struggle and triumph that is at once commonplace and, sadly, far too rare. The movie is not just a story of abuse and breaking free, but an indictment of a global system, that castigates, questions and endangers women with no regard. The film does not just show the abuse and trauma women go through in an abusive relationship. It also shows the trauma they often experience in court, the catch-22 system that often isn’t about help and freedom, but keeping them in another form of financial dependency. 

Synopsis: Sandra (Clare Dunne), a single mother, who escapes her abusive partner with her two young children, only to find herself trapped in temporary accommodation. After months of struggling, she draws inspiration from one of her daughter’s bedtime stories and hits upon the idea of self-building an affordable home. She finds an architect who provides her with plans and is offered land by Peggy (Harriet Walter), a woman she cleans for. Aido (Conleth Hill), a building contractor, appears willing to help, too. But as her past rears its head in the form of Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson), her possessive ex, and as bureaucrats fight back against her independent spirit, will Sandra be able to rebuild her life from the ground up?

Herself image of a woman carrying a little girl, a row of people behind them.
Photo Credit Pat Redmond/Amazon Studios Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Written by Clare Dunne and Malcolm Campbell and directed by Phyllida Lloyd, the film is often painful to watch. Clare Dunne gives a star performance as Sandra. She brings a multi-dimensional, complex character to life onscreen. It’s not just fear or anger that Sandra feels. Self-doubt, love for her abusive partner, worry that she is failing her children and joyful moments with friends and her children are all present. She is not solely her abuse, but is a spirited person in her own right, fighting to make something beautiful from a bad situation for her family. 

An Apt Depiction Of Abuse And The Law

Scenes of Sandra’s flashbacks of the abuse she suffered after each time she talks to her ex are powerful. It’s not just remembered pain, but it feels as though she’s back there again, reliving the horror. The scenes and story doesn’t solely deal with a woman escaping abuse, but shows the entire process women suffer through after leaving an abusive relationship. It’s always the same questions, “why didn’t you leave sooner?” “Why didn’t you report it?” The impetus is constantly put on the woman, while men are never questioned about their abuse. 

Plus, god forbid you get about anything ever, because they will use that as evidence that you lied about the abuse. Sadly, again the abuser is never accused of lying and rarely is evidence provided showing they’re a liar. Nor is the system of public assistance and even spousal abuse shelters helpful because it usually entails leaving you dependent on the system, while simultaneously shaming you for that dependency. You’re expected to be grateful despite subpar living conditions. There is little opportunity to find your strength and voice inside a system that is designed to make women feel helpless. The system, just like abusers, want their victims financially dependent on them. But given the patriarchal nature of the system, this is unsurprising.    

Herself still of Sandra with construction workers jotting down notes
Photo Credit Pat Redmond/Amazon Studios Courtesy of Amazon Studios

The danger is worse when there are children because; unfortunately, even when a man abuses his partner, if he hasn’t physically harmed the children he is often given visitation rights. There is no regard for how this increases trauma and puts the woman in danger by forcing them to still have a connection to their abuser. Nor is there consideration that not all abuse is physical. If a child does not suffer physical abuse, the assumption is they have suffered no damage. And if the abuser comes from a wealthy family, there is even less accountability for their actions. 

A Compelling and Necessary Story With Heart-wrenching Music

The story also shows how much gaslighting victims of abuse suffer. Her husband asks, “what are we doing” rather than “what have I done”. He then queries, “do you think this is good for the girls?” It’s a common tactic meant to split blame between both parties, then shove the abuser’s half toward their victim. This is an abuser saying; “we were both to blame when I hit you, but what you’re going through now is solely your fault.” Abusers always try and avoid blame. They make every action and reaction out to be exaggerated, because you’re just an emotional female. After all they only hit you so what’s the big deal? 

The music is pretty good in parts, and those that don’t hit may not be the fault of the film. As, thanks to Sia’s responses to criticisms of her movie, her tracks annoy rather than feel inspirational—at least to me. Despite this, there are uplifting moments with people who have little connection to Sandra, working together to help her build her home. Still the end is bittersweet overall but sometimes that’s the best we can hope for in the moment. The movie is a well-crafted, soulfully acted glimpse at what victims of abuse suffer. The bitter part stems from knowing these stories are not relegated solely to the silver screen.

Rating: 4/5

Feature photo credit Pat Redmond/Amazon Studios Courtesy of Amazon Studios

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