“It’s land Sandra, going to waste. Use it. Build a house for you and your girls.”
If life as you know it is crumbling around you and you need to rebuild its foundation – not just for your own sake but for your children’s, why not go and literally build yourself a home? That is the premise of the new film “Herself” (2019) — which recently starting playing on Amazon Prime – written by its leading actress Claire Dunn and directed by Phyllida Lloyd (helmer of “Mamma Mia” and “Iron Lady”). It’s an uplifting story about a woman’s road to recovery forging her own future with her own hands.
The Dublin actor Clare Dunne was in New York auditioning for roles when a friend back home – a single mom with three children — called her to tell her that she had to declare herself homeless after her landlord had given her notice. Her friend was now living with her parents in a single room. Dunne was so moved by this story that she was inspired to write a script about it. During a recent conversation with her via Zoom she told me, “What if a woman said, ‘I’m going to find a bit of land, I’m going to build a house.’ It’s just bricks and wood, after all. I Googled ‘self-build Ireland’ and discovered an Irish architect called Dominic Stevens who had built a house for himself for an affordable price.” That was the seed for her screenplay and creating “Herself.”
Sandra is a young mother of two daughters who flees her abusive husband only to find herself a victim of the housing system in Ireland. She rushes between school runs and temporary accommodations. She is holding two jobs while the father of the children has visiting rights on the weekend. She also suffers from PTSD from her husband’s beatings — as well as a broken wrist. While reading her daughter a bedtime story she gets the idea of building a home for her family. A woman she cleans for learns about her quest and offers a plot of land behind her house. Sandra also encounters the kindness of a retired contractor who is charmed by her quixotic dream and determination.
But just as things start to move forward, her husband – who has been kept in the dark about her plans – decides to fight for custody of his daughters and to use the bureaucracy of the system to destroy her best laid plans.
Reminiscent of the realism of British Ken Loach films which deal with social issues, “Herself” tackles themes of domestic abuse and the housing crisis, yet there’s a prevalent sense of hopefulness throughout the film. Sandra encounters obstacles, but people come together to aid her. When co-workers hear about the construction, they show up to help out. The montages of those gatherings are so beautiful. One of the wonders of the film is us watching how the home is built from the ground up. There’s something spiritual about this – a physical expression of Sandra’s rebirth and gaining back control of her life.
Dunne as Sandra is powerful in this – a combination of vulnerability and strength. There’s one moment — she is in court confronting her husband and the judge — that shows a depth of emotions that is searing. She’s surrounded by a terrific supporting cast which includes Conleth Hill as Aldo the contractor who comes to her aid. Famous from his villainous role in “Game of Thrones” it is refreshing to see him showing us his versatility. Harriet Walter is memorable as Peggy the generous purveyor of the site, and Ian Lloyd Anderson – another “Game of Thrones” veteran – is menacing as her ex-husband. Director Lloyd – an accomplished theatrical director – does her best work to date on screen. It’s a simple story with a timely message about the power of reconstruction – something that is particularly resonant right now, as we turn the page and begin a new chapter in our country’s history.
Aldo: “It’s your home, you break ground.”
Available to stream on Amazon Prime
Written by Malcolm Campbell and Clare Dunne
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd
Starring Clare Dunne, Harriet Walter and Conleth Hill
Bringing “Herself” to the Screen
Lloyd has wanted to make a low-budget film for years. “I had such a curious start – going in at that Hollywood blockbuster level. I’ve been trying to climb back down to earth ever since.” Lloyd previously worked with Dunne and Walter staging a groundbreaking all-female Shakespeare trilogy set in a women’s prison. The plays originated in workshops at HMP Holloway with ex-offenders in the cast. That experience, adds Lloyd, informed Herself: “We became so overwhelmed by the number of women in prison whose lives began in domestic violence and were fleeing abusive relationships.” The opening scene is crucial, she says. “That moment of crossing the threshold to leave is the moment when many women get killed, the moment of greatest danger. A lot of women are putting their lives and the lives of their kids at risk.” What is unmistakably Lloyd about “Herself” is that it puts women centre stage and it is the work of a group of female collaborators, including Sharon Horgan, one of the producers. If you can picture Ken Loach realism mixed with Horgan’s laughs plus a teaspoon of honey stirred in, you’ve got a sense of the film’s tone. Dunne was inspired to start working on the script a few years ago, while auditioning in New York. A friend in Dublin called to say she was about to become homeless: “She’s a single mother with three kids. She was being evicted from her house at the end of the month.” The call knocked Dunne for six. Here she was supposed to be learning lines for a detective show, but her mind was racing. “It just felt all wrong. The world felt turned upside-down. Surely, things can be easier for her. Why is it so bloody difficult? It’s just bricks put on top of each other.” In a flash, a story came to her. What if a single mum built her own house? “No more endless forms and waiting in queues for your life to begin.” A quick Google search threw up the Irish architect Dominic Stevens, who had designed a small timber-frame house that could be made with fairly basic DIY skills. “The first thing I read was in the Guardian,” she says with a grin. “An article about Dominic building his house for 25 grand.”
Dunne spent years researching the script. She put the hours in, meeting social workers, psychologists, women’s charities, family lawyers and journalists with access to the family court. Her research into domestic violence began in a Women’s Aid charity shop in Dublin. She walked in and asked the shop assistant who would be the best person at the charity to speak to. The assistant turned out to be a domestic abuse survivor and grilled Dunne about her script. How would she end the film? Could she please show that women didn’t have to be victims for ever? “The way she spoke was so urgent. And that was my instinct anyway. I didn’t want Sandra to be the archetype of the battered woman. These women are so brave. They’re brave when they’re staying and brave when they’re leaving.” The world of cleaning, meanwhile, required no research: Dunne’s mum worked as a cleaner until last year. As Sandra builds her house, she recovers from her injuries, both physical and mental. Her ex begins to use contact with their kids to control her. Reading miles of transcripts from the family court, Dunne was shocked by how often women are asked: “Why didn’t you leave sooner?” She says: “Don’t they realise that this woman has been brainwashed to a point where she has no escape. The guy has usually convinced everyone around her that everything is brilliant. There’s all sorts of gaslighting going on. Then the woman has to stand up in court and explain herself, with him sitting there, absolutely crapping herself.” Writing the script was emotional. “I’d fucking cry the whole time sometimes. It just sort of opened things up. Afterwards, I’d feel a bit rinsed.” But by the time she came to act the scenes with violence or controlling behaviour, she felt prepared. “They were difficult on some level but I’d be building towards them.” Her performance is astonishing, and seems destined to make her a star. Dunne never intended to play Sandra. She thought the part would need to go to a more famous actor to get the funding. Taking up the spotlight doesn’t exactly come naturally either. Lloyd used to tease her with a joke when they were rehearsing Henry IV, in which Dunne played Prince Hal. “How many Irishwomen does it take to change a lightbulb?” Lloyd would ask, then answer her own question: “Achh noo. It’s OK. Sure, I’ll be fine here in the dark.” Cracking up as she shares this, Dunne adds that Lloyd practically had to shove her into the centre of the stage.
When it came to the film, she made a condition of her directing that Dunne star. Dunne has also written a terrific part for an older actor in Peggy, the doctor who makes a gift to Sandra of land. Harriet Walter tells me how rare it is to find a sympathetic role. “I’m on a mission to tell the world that not every old person is stuck in their ways. In many plots, you’re there to be this immovable block. It’s not my experience of myself or my contemporaries.” Dunne actually wrote part of the script while staying at Walter’s house in London, after a two-month sub-let fell through when she arrived to do a play. “I was the mad woman in the attic,” says Dunne, laughing. All the women involved in the film seem to be upset by the news during the pandemic of the surge in domestic violence. “The burden this lockdown has had,” says Horgan, “on women in particular, and children, those suffering domestic abuse – it’s even harder to find a way out. Families on the breadline are in crisis situations. Housing is an even bigger issue now. We hope this film shines a light on these issues.” Horgan believes lockdown has given the film an extra emotional impact: “Everyone has been isolated, with so much hardship, but there are so many stories of people reaching out, helping their community, allowing themselves to accept help. We can’t be inward-looking any more. That’s not going to work in this current climate.” I wonder about Dunne’s friend. Did she get her housing sorted? “She stayed in temporary accommodation briefly,” says Dunne, “then with her parents for 10 months in one room – pretty hard – and eventually rented a place again. She still works like a Trojan and survives on very little. But she is doing good.”
Phyllida Lloyd on “Herself”
“I was looking for a low-budget film to do. Claire Dunne and I were working together in the theatre, in this all-female collective. We were working in women’s prisons. We were very passionate about women’s stories. We met a lot of women in prison who had spent most of their lives in households of domestic violence. It was something we were talking about a lot. One day, a friend of Claire’s in Dublin was [suddenly] thrown out of her apartment because the landlord was selling. She had three kids. And there was literally nowhere for her to live in Dublin. She had to declare herself homeless. Claire was so appalled. She sat down and started writing the script. When she showed it to me, just for friendly input, I was immediately taken by the fact that this is a story that we’ve seen, the story of the battered woman and what happens to her, but I hadn’t read this take on it ever before. The story starts at the moment where the woman leaves an abusive partner. It’s a story that is not without hope, and that’s an understatement. Sandra is a kind of towering figure of strength who is this agent of her own destiny. Help comes to her, but she actually has already carved out a plan of what she wants to do. It’s just a very different approach. I loved the light and shade of the kind of thriller momentum to it. I thought she wrote the mother and child world of it so beautifully. And I was passionate that Claire would have a film career. She wasn’t even thinking of playing Sandra. She was thinking of playing a small, sister role that she’d written in it. She thought maybe it was one bridge too far to think she would be able to play the lead in it, that to get it financed would take a leading star. When I found that out, I thought, my God, you know what,I’m going to direct it, and I’m going to absolutely make sure that you are playing the lead in your own movie.” (seventh-row.com)
About Writer Malcolm Campbell
Malcolm is an award-winning screenwriter from Mansfield whose credits include the acclaimed feature film What Richard Did and C4’s hit drama series Ackley Bridge, which he created and wrote. He has written for some of the UK’s most popular dramas, including Shameless and Skins, as well as the Golden Globe-nominated mini-series The White Queen (BBC1/Starz). He created and wrote the BBC’s multi-Bafta-winning educational show L8R, and gained Bafta nominations for his own single dramas, All About Me (BBC1) and Losing It (C4). Malcolm’s screenplay for What Richard Did, directed by Lenny Abrahamson and produced by Ed Guiney, won numerous awards including The Evening Standard British Film Awards’ Best Screenplay, the Writers Guild’s Best Screenplay, and the Irish Film and TV Awards’ Best Film Script. Ackley Bridge, a drama series set in a fictional West Yorkshire school, is now on its third series. (curtisbrown.co.uk) And Malcolm’s latest screenplay,” Herself,” was released in 2020.
About Writer and Actor Clare Dunne
Actress Clare Dunne was born in Dublin. She trained in Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. She has written a one woman show, played theatre roles including Barbara in “Major Barbara” at The Abbey Theatre and worked in the National Theatre alongside the likes of Sinead Cusack and Ciaran Hinds. She lives between London, Dublin and New York but hopes to settle in Ireland to be near her five sisters and five nieces and nephews. (irishpost.com) She most recently acted in “Spider-Man: Far from Home” in 2019 and co-wrote and starred in the film, “Herself” in 2020.
About Director Phyllida Lloyd
British director Phyllida Lloyd made her Royal Opera debut in 2002 on Macbeth. Her production of Gloriana for Opera North was seen at the Royal Opera House in 1993. Lloyd studied English and drama at Birmingham University and is now widely known for her work in theatre, opera and film. Her opera credits include La bohème, Albert Herring, Carmen and Peter Grimes for Opera North, The Carmelites for English National Opera and Welsh National Opera, The Handmaid’s Tale for Royal Danish Opera and ENO, the Ring cycle and a staged production of Verdi’s Requiem for ENO, Macbeth for Paris Opéra and an award-winning film of Gloriana for BBC2. Her theatre and musical credits include Josephine and I (Bush Theatre/Public Theatre, New York), Mary Stuart (Donmar Warehouse, West End and Broadway; winner of a 2006 South Bank Show Theatre Award), Six Degrees of Separation and Wild East (Royal Court), Henry IV and Julius Caesar (Donmar Warehouse), Pericles, The Duchess of Malfi, What the Butler Saw, The Way of the World and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (National Theatre), The Virtuoso and Artists and Admirers (Royal Shakespeare Company) and Mamma Mia!. She directed the films “Mamma Mia!” and “The Iron Lady.” Lloyd’s awards include a Royal Philharmonic Society Award in 2006 for Peter Grimes and a South Bank Show Award in 2007 for Mary Stuart. She was Cameron Mackintosh Visiting Professor of Contemporary Theatre at Oxford University in 2006, and was made a CBE in 2010. (roh.org.uk) Lloyd’s most recent film is “Herself” which was released in 2020.