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‘Herself’ Portrays the Power of Human Empathy Through Constructing a Tiny But Mighty House

January 1, 2021
4 min read time

Herself opens on a child’s playhouse belonging to one of Sandra’s (played by the powerful Clare Dunne) children. Inside is an inscription listing a phone number and a request to call the cops. The house represents Sandra’s current and future salvation as she works to escape an abusive marriage in the city of Dublin that feels equally in crisis throughout the film. In a moment of facing down the hand of her abuser, Sandra does not yet know how the idea of a house of her own will eventually change her life.

Dunne also scripted the story, influenced by a close friend that was experiencing homelessness in Dublin. Dunne says she started to research self-building homes and she realized a tiny home could be constructed for less than 30,000 euro; the idea stuck with her and the script for Herself started to come into focus.

“One thing that stuck with me in research was that women who have gone through violence made statements that they felt safer in prison,” she said.

Thankfully prison is not Sandra’s destination in Herself but the prospect of it isn’t off the table as she and her two young girls live an invisible and difficult life, bouncing from hotel to hotel as they wait on a long list for government housing assistance. When they land at a nice hotel near the airport, Sandra is forced to walk up hundreds of steps in lieu of taking the elevator as the hotel manager insists her presence in the posh lobby will upset the fancier guests. As one can deduce, the decision to leave a comfortable home she’d built with her husband (who she clearly once loved) is not an easy one for the now-single mother.

Dunne’s first screenplay is startlingly frank, incredibly moving, and joyful in its simplicity. While Sandra's life is obviously in dire straits, she has more allies than she could’ve imagined. Sandra struggles as a cleaning woman while her kids are at school. Her tasks are even more difficult because her ex shattered her wrist. Yet when Sandra encounters her client Peggy (played by acclaimed British actress Harriet Walter) collapsed on the ground, her life begins to change for the better. Sandra lends Peggy a hand that day, and Peggy lends Sandra the tools to change her life. The chemistry between Peggy and Sandra and both their oversized hearts is soon apparent.

While Dunne seems born to play Sandra, she states she didn’t initially write with herself in mind.

“I was just writing to get it made,” she recounts.

“For me it was good to think like that. It just made me focus on writing good lines. I would say as a writer-actor try to let go of your writer’s hat on the first day of shooting. Just delve into the spirit of the characters. I like to think with the script you are handing actors potential.”

The lovely potential of people is what bleeds through in Herself the most. It might be Sandra’s openness or desperation or sheer naive determination, but she brings out the goodness in people throughout the film. When she needs land and a loan to build her tiny dream home and get out of Ireland’s dysfunctional aid system, Peggy loans her both. When she needs a contractor who knows what he’s doing, Sandra convinces an acquaintance in a hardware store parking lot to lend a hand. When Sandra needs additional hands to get the construction done, she rallies a fellow mum in the school playground. There is something about Sandra’s soulful eyes, and blind belief that building a house will be her salvation, that people just can’t say no. Either way, watching people believe in potential in the wake of a dark year is incredibly powerful.

Dunne mused that watching people face their darkest moments continuously made her believe in the kindness of others. During her research, Dunne spent a fair amount of time in court watching abused women go through custody battles  there is a heart-wrenching scene in the film dealing with Sandra’s own battle.

“Moments of kindness keep the fabric of society together. Life can be so lonely but sometimes just going into a shop and the woman from behind the counter giving you a smile, that can change your day and make you feel okay. I wanted to get those small interactions across in the film,” she said.

The bonding of characters, cast and crew to come together and build a house was an excellent vehicle to show those common bonds. Dunne even connected with architect Dominic Stevens, who put forth plans (and YouTube instructional videos) on how to build the tiny home of his design. Dunne credits him with making her a better writer and likens writing a script to building a home.

“There’s creative alignment there. You have to have a strangely practical understanding of the magic that can happen. When he brought me into his house, and I stood in it and felt how gorgeous it was and realized anyone could build it  it had a huge effect,” she said.

The cast, crew and contractors came together to actually build a version of Stevens’ home. They constructed it quickly for a five-week shoot and had to change the shape of it to leave room for specific production design and cameras. Nonetheless, the effect in the story is mesmerizing and powerful. Try not to cry when Sandra brings her kids into the bedroom that she built herself with literal blood, sweat and tears.

Much credit of the quiet power of the film is also due to director Phyllida Lloyd (perhaps best known for Mamma Mia!). In her time away from the big screen Lloyd has been building a troupe of female actors creating power through performance in their own right with numerous all-female Shakespeare productions. Dunne and Walter were both a part of Lloyd’s Shakespeare crew, giving the group an amazing shorthand for Herself. Of the collaboration Dunne said Lloyd is excellent at bringing out the potential of every cast member on set  for a film that’s greatly about human potential, that’s perhaps the best quality you could ask for in a director.

The film comes full circle in the end. Sandra starts with writing a message to the world in her child’s playhouse, and she ends with a message that comes back to her through her children. It’s not the house itself that Sandra needed, but instead the belief in herself.


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