“Black widow.”

This is what Sandra (Clare Dunne, “Cynthia”) whispers to her eldest daughter Emma (Ruby Rose O’Hara, “The Secret Market”) right before Sandra’s husband Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson, “Love/Hate”) throws her to the ground and beats her until her face is bloodied and her wrist is shattered. In between shots of Gary’s vicious aggression, Emma is shown running to a nearby store with an ornate container. Inside is a note which reads, “Call 999, my life is in danger.” 

Directed by Phyllida Lloyd (“Mamma Mia!”), “Herself” is a story co-written by Dunne and framed in the context of Dublin’s domestic abuse and housing crises. The film follows Sandra as she transforms from a wife and mother of 10 years to a woman living in a hotel room with her children to avoid her abuser. Though free from sharing the same space as Gary, Sandra grapples with suffocating anxiety as she relives her abuse and has to drop her daughters off every weekend at the home where it occurred. To finally feel emancipated, Sandra decides that she is going to build a house for her and her daughters and, as a result, reclaim her life.

Though “Herself” incorporates a magnitude of social issues — family court, housing availability, domestic abuse and anxiety, just to name a few — it does so in a way that is more empathetic and harmonious than it is preachy or disjointed. Dunne, in one of her first major roles, is captivating as her self-written character. She is able to flawlessly swing between joy and pain, desperation and hope, telling the story of trauma hidden behind a mother trying to do what’s best for her kids. Dunne’s defining performance is bolstered by supporting actress Harriet Walter (“Succession”). Walter plays Peggy, an old doctor that Sandra’s late mother used to work for, who offers up her large backyard to be the site of Sandra’s DIY home. Peggy is sharp-witted and tough, but never fails to be a comforting presence when Sandra breaks down. 

At some points, the plot does seem relatively predictable. Secretly building a house to escape your abusive partner is no easy feat, as we come to see. But the occasional foreseeable moments of the movie did not take away from the trance it put me in, and any feeling that one knows what’s coming next is blown apart when the final “black widow” of the film is uttered. Needless to say, the ending is not a happy one — it reaches inside you and freezes your heart, as you pray you’re not seeing what you think you are. But even if it is not happy, it is hopeful, and no one will leave the movie feeling completely devastated. 

If there is anything to complain about — and really, there is very little — it is the auditory elements of the film. Some song choices are truly bizarre, and the uneven sound mixing made Sia’s “Titanium” blasting through my skull all the more unpleasant. And though it seems legally required that any Irish piece of media use “Dreams” by The Cranberries, the hazy song was forced awkwardly in, cut off right when you needed it to get good. 

Poor music choice aside, “Herself” is a film that follows you well after you leave the theater. It is painful, yet necessary. It is an exceptional film that gracefully touches upon devastating and sensitive topics through a remarkable actress who is bound for continued greatness.

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