Film & Television

Building a Brave New Life in ‘Herself’

Early on in the days of Coronavirus, experts recognized that while much of the world was staying home to be safe, there are those for whom home is the most dangerous place they can be. While we joked about endless Zoom meetings, toilet paper shortages, and overdue haircuts, victims of domestic violence (the majority of whom are women) were locked in with their abusers. They were physically cut off from friends and family, counselors and advocates, even welcome diversions and brief respites like running local errands. And, the stress and anxiety we’ve all felt only increases the likelihood of violence. Add to that the difficulty in many communities of obtaining emergency care, and it’s easy for any of us to recognize the scope and severity of this brutal byproduct of the pandemic.

Of course, domestic violence didn’t begin in 2020. It’s as old, no doubt, as domestic relationships themselves. The earliest laws that not only cite but encourage domestic violence are found in the Code of Hammurabi, located in the Louvre’s collection. Named for a Babylonian king who ruled from 1792 to 1750 BC, the code included the first steps toward modern laws, like the presumption of innocence and the need for evidential proof. However, it also stated that wives and children were legally the property of their husband and father. They had no legal rights and could be punished for insubordination by everything from a beating, to an ear or hand being cut off, to drowning. A century later, Roman law allowed husbands to sell their wives into slavery, beat them, disown them, or kill them for any “offences,” the definition of which was left to the sole discretion of said husband.

Over the following centuries, the situation improved, but not by much. The Catholic Church’s 15th century “Rules of Marriage” asserted that regularly beating a wife was beneficial to her soul. The North American Puritans forbade “excessive” violence, which meant a husband could beat his wife as long as he didn’t disturb the neighbors. In fact, it wasn’t until 1871, when a husband was accused of assault and battery for striking his wife with a board, that a court in Alabama determined that “a married woman is as much under the protection of the law as any other member of the community.” Other states eventually followed, and domestic violence is now illegal throughout the U.S. However, it remains notoriously difficult to prosecute, much less prevent.

Here are some sobering figures. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, more than 10 million Americans are victims of domestic violence annually. One in four women (and one in ten men) experience it at some time in their life. On a typical day, domestic violence hotlines in the U.S. receive 19,000 calls. And, 50% of female homicide victims are killed by their intimate partner.

One last point I’d like to make. I’ve always been frustrated with the term “domestic violence.” To me, the addition of the qualifying word “domestic,” implies that the “violence” is somehow less violent. (I have the same reaction to the phrase “date rape.”) Domestic violence is violence. Period.

If you have any doubt, just watch the first five minutes of the beautiful new film Herself.

Intimately and respectfully directed by Phyllida Lloyd (The Iron Lady and Mamma Mia!, Herself tells the story of Sandra, a working-class Irish woman who has two angelic daughters and a monster for a husband. The movie stars Clare Dunne and was written by her (or, in the Irish vernacular of the film, by “herself”) along with Malcolm Campbell. Both Lloyd and Dunne received prizes from the Dublin International Film Festival, and I predict more to follow. Variety called Herself “the standout of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.”

The movie begins with Sandra, eight-year old Molly (Molly McKenna) and six-year old Emma (Ruby Rose O’Hara) playing a game of ‘freeze dance’ to Sia’s “Chandelier.” The moment is loving, joyful, and over all too fast. The family patriarch Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson) comes home and insists that the girls go outside so he can talk to their mother. Sandra whispers a code word in Molly’s ear and the child springs into action, racing with her lunchbox to the nearest shop where she opens it to show the clerk Sandra’s desperate message to call 999 for help. “Hurry!” Molly implores, “It’s me ma!” Meanwhile, Gary, who has found evidence that Sandra is planning to leave him, punches her in the face, drags her across the floor, and stomps on her outstretched hand with enough force to break it and inflict what we later learn is perhaps permanent nerve damage. There is no question that he could just as quickly and easily kill her. Sandra’s foresight, Molly’s race, and the lunchbox have probably saved her life.

Sandra and the girls are removed from the home and placed in “temporary” housing, a single room in an airport hotel, where they and others waiting on the state’s housing list are prohibited from using the lobby or the elevator. We are privy to a series of scenes that show how difficult and seemingly hopeless Sandra’s situation is. She works two jobs, has to drive an inordinate distance twice a day to the girls’ school, waits on an endless queue for subsidized housing that goes to a well-heeled couple instead, and most shattering of all, has to deliver her precious children to her ex-husband every weekend for his court approved “visitations.” Gary, true to form for an abuser, begs for another chance, promises he’ll change, assures her he’s getting counseling. Nearly every interaction with him drives Sandra into PTSD flashbacks. She is also racked with shame; the system seems to blame her as much as it purports to help her.

Hope arrives when Sandra accidentally stumbles upon plans for building her own home. With no construction experience, no money, and no help from the state (which, Sandra points out, would save hundreds of thousands of euros if they financed her project instead of supporting her for the all years it will take to relocate her), her plan seems unlikely to succeed. But, while the film is titled Herself, she collects a colorful, if somewhat motley, crew of helpers, which include her employer (Dame Harriet Walter), a courteous retired contractor (Conleth Hill), his son who has Down syndrome (Daniel Ryan), a school mom, and a fellow waitress with others from her “squat.” 

As her home is slowly being built, Sandra is challenged by what many heroines (and heroes) in films like Herself must face. Gary is suing for custody, the absurdity of which almost overshadows the sheer horror. Sandra is essentially put on trial for being an unfit mother (Molly was injured at the new house worksite), for lying on a state housing form, and for “not leaving sooner.” Warned by her supportive social worker (Cathy Belton) not to become too emotional, Sandra finally pushes back. “Ask better questions,” she upbraids the judge. “You ask questions like ‘Why didn’t you leave him?’ But, you never ask, ‘Why didn’t he stop?’”

Herself is a powerful, if sometimes predictable, film. The bulk of its success is due to Dunne’s absolutely courageous performance. Dunne is a classically trained stage actress and worked with both Lloyd and Walker in London’s Donmar Warehouse’s All-Female Shakespeare Trilogy. Inspired to write the story after hearing a friend who was left “homeless” by the system, she infuses Sandra with honesty and humanity, and the perseverance that can only be mustered when you have something in your life that means more to you than life itself. Her love for Molly and Emma drives every decision she makes, every humiliating interaction with uncaring bureaucrats, belligerent barkeepers, and her man who tried to kill her. She fights for the girls in court; she fights for them every waking moment of every single day. She has been beaten. She has been broken. But, she is a hero. And, you will love her for all of it.

Ireland’s domestic violence statistics are every bit as bleak as those in the U.S. One in four women has been abused by a current or former partner; one in seven has been severely abused. As happens so often in real life, Sandra’s story does not have the fairy story ending we would wish for her and her girls. 

But, what’s left is invaluable: community, hope, and love. 

Herself is available on Amazon Prime.


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