Even if you don’t have the personal experience of being a victim of domestic violence, you quickly get the inkling that Sandra’s husband is a bully, coiled with a flair for violence. It is telling that Sandra (Clare Dunne) has what looks like a permanent black eye, with burst vessels under her eye that seem to never heal. An explosion of violence from her husband (which results in her arm being broken) propels Sandra to flee, hopefully for good, with her two young daughters. But the bureaucracy of the Irish social welfare system, combined with law that makes it difficult to protect her children from her ex, make her life a frustrating daily struggle.
After staying in homeless shelters (where the unhoused are told to enter from the back so as not to startle the guests in the hotel that shares the building), Sandra just wants to find something permanent and stable for her girls before they get trapped in the cycle of poverty and homelessness. When her employer Peggy (Harriet Walter), a woman whom she cleans house for, hears of their plight she offers a plot of land in her huge yard to build a small house. It seems both too good to be true (the space is magical) but also a no-brainer in these modern times. What seems like a perfect solution of course can’t be that easy.
Herself serves as both a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” story of empowerment, and a frustrating portrayal of the many devices that are in place to keep struggling people down. If it’s not the building permits, expenses, and difficulty in finding people willing to volunteer to help her build the small house, Sandra faces paper pushers and judges that lean towards her ex’s rights as a biological father vs. her and her children’s rights to not be beaten and abused. It is super depressing to witness her roadblocks because you know that this is the reality in most Western countries.
I’d say that Herself is the feel-good, create your own destiny movie that we all need right now. But the truth is, it makes sure to temper the positives with the realistic negatives that face a person like Sandra. This goes beyond the have and have nots, and the abusers and the victims, reflecting on how much is broken in modern society. But the story still manages to be heartwarming. Glimmers of hope are offered, even as bad things seem to overwhelm the good. I sure wish thought that there was more than just a glimmer… we need actual rays of light these days.