It would be easy to mistake Phyllida Lloyd’s “Herself” as the latest work from Ken Loach.
Much like that filmmaker’s “Ladybird, Ladybird,” “I, Daniel Blake” and “Sorry We Missed You,” this drama focuses on the (barely) working class, particularly one poverty-stricken Irish woman’s efforts to fight a system seemingly built to keep her down.
Though it may seem derivative, that doesn’t negate its impact, as Lloyd employs a quiet, subtle approach that effectively shines a light on an eternal social problem, one this- movie contends can be overcome through tenacity, hard work and more than a little luck.
Caring for two precocious girls, Sandra (Clare Dunne) is stretched to her limit. Having left her abusive husband (Ian Lloyd Anderson), she works two menial jobs, while she and her daughters live in government-subsidized housing.
Realizing she’s on a dead-end road, Sandra pursues what seems like a pipe dream — she decides she’s going to build her own house. Finding a do-it-yourself expert online along with plans for a basic two-story home, she sets out to learn as much as she can about construction, running into one hurdle after another, particularly from the local government.
Where will she build her house? How will she raise the money? And just how will she do this on her own?
One could easily pick apart the script by Malcolm Campbell and Dunne, as the solutions they employ veer from plausible coincidence to blatant Deus Ex Machina. No matter.
While Lloyd’s intent is to make a pointed political commentary — and she succeeds — there’s a degree of wish fulfillment at play here as well.
That Sandra happens to encounter a kindly contractor (Conleth Hill) is a bit of stretch. That she’s able to rally a group of giving individuals who are willing to help, a little less so.
In the long run, it doesn’t matter, as Lloyd’s point is to deliver a message of salvation, a reminder that, while difficult and rare, it is possible to change your circumstances, and people are capable of great generosity.
Dunne is good here, never taking the easy route of playing the victim but displaying a sense of strength — battered though it may be at times — that has us in Sandra’s corner from the start.
No Pollyanna, she does despair, but it is during these moments that the film hits its stride, providing the viewer with timely catharsis.
Wonderful support is provided by Hill, who never overplays heart-full-of-gold curmudgeon Aido; Harriet Walter, who’s tenacious and sympathetic as Sandra’s benefactor; and Anderson as our heroine’s ex, conveying palpable menace and casting a threatening shadow.
Films like this run the risk of being dismissed as naïve or simplistic, their sincere intent brushed aside by a cynicism that’s all too easy to embrace.
Without question, at times, it is difficult to believe in hope and charity, and yet our darkest moments are when we need these things the most.
Lloyd and Dunne understand this, “Herself” being a testament to the faith they have in the kindness of strangers and friends, as well as an inherent sense of goodness in the world.
They aren’t blindly optimistic. They realize that if we are to survive, it’s necessary that we embrace these convictions.