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OPINION | NEW MOVIES: TV's 'Herself'; 'Miami,' 'Stars' viewable now

by Philip Martin | January 8, 2021 at 1:52 a.m.
Peggy (Harriet Walter) is a doctor who gives her house cleaner a chance at a better life in the Netflix film “Herself,” which was directed by Phllida Lloyd and features a cast of veteran stage actors.

The Movie of the Week was a mid-'60s-'80s phenomenon comprised of made-for-TV films that in 90 minutes (two hours with commercials) resolve a fictional narrative centered on an actual (or perceived as actual) societal problem. While some of these films are better than others, they are generally seen as second-rate and purpose-built formulaic entertainments that, by virtue of their relevance, pretend to importance.

Some might be tempted to characterize Phyllida Lloyd's "Herself," premiering on Netflix today, as a kind of highbrow movie of the week. It is after all about a woman trying to escape an abusive relationship and establish a home for her children and herself. With a little tweaking, the script -- co-written with Malcolm Campbell by Irish actor Clare Dunne, who plays Sandra, the abused mother -- could have become something like Rose Leiman Goldemberg's "The Burning Bed" (1984), which is in the running for the greatest TV movie of all time, or a triumphalist revenge thriller like 1991's "Sleeping With the Enemy."

Instead there's a disquieting naturalism to this film, which moves the center of balance toward the gritty kitchen-sink social realism of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh.

"Herself" opens with a scene of graphic violence, but for the most part is as low-key as it is emotionally acute. You might come to hate Sandra's husband, Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson), but you'll never mistake him for anything grander than what he is -- a desperate and troubled little man crippled by insecurities. He's not evil; he's pathetic.

Still, it takes a lot of courage for Sandra to take her daughters and run. She works two jobs and is grateful for the airport hotel accommodations Dublin city government is providing her, even if the hotel management doesn't want her showing herself in the lobby lest her downmarket presence offend their real guests.

Without Gary's support, she's living a difficult subsistence lifestyle, rising before dawn to drive 8-year-old Emma (Ruby Rose O'Hara) and 6-year-old Molly (Molly McCann) across Dublin to their old schools, cleaning house for socially concerned physician Peggy (Harriet Walter) -- a job she apparently inherited from her mother -- and pulling pints in a pub in the evening. In between she has to fit in meetings with social services caseworker Jo (Cathy Belton). It's all too much.

Though it isn't, because Sandra isn't going to give up a better life for her family. She's been watching YouTube videos by a guy who says if you can come up with a patch of land, he can teach you how to build your own house on it for about £35,000 -- what some people would pay for a new pickup. But for that price, you're going to have to supply your own labor.

And Sandra fears that if the city finds out what she's up to she'll lose her subsidized housing and have to choose between the street and going back to Gary.

Who, speak of the poor devil, is insisting on his visitation rights, though young Molly is terrified of him.

All these complications are that much sadder for their plausibility. There's nothing in "Herself" that smacks of melodrama or even heightened reality until the final act (which might strike some as a little much).

All of the relationships are tuned to the same note -- there is kindness and empathy in most of the people Sandra comes into contact with after escaping her domestic hell -- and the dialogue feels like overheard conversation. There's not a false performance in the film, and while Sandra's circumstances are dire, we get the feeling that they are hardly extraordinary.

(No title card announces it, but there are studies that show 30% of women are victims of domestic abuse at some point in their lives. A lot of them have it much worse than Sandra.)

Still, while "Herself" resolves on a hopeful note, it's not triumphalist. What Sandra might achieve, the film suggests, is a cozy little life, a solid base from which her daughters might launch themselves into something better. Which is, we presume, all that this feisty and proud young woman might ask.

Some audiences might ask more from their movies, but however cathartic it would have been to see Sandra shoot Gary in the face, the real test of a movie like "Herself" is how, or if, it lingers.

Dunne has does scant film work prior to this -- she had a small role in 2019's "Spider-Man: Far From Home" -- but it wouldn't be surprising to see her pick up some awards buzz for this role. "Herself" seems made for home-size screens, a TV movie in the best sense of the term.

It's the sort of drama Hollywood used to make in the '70s, a showcase for fine and precisely calibrated performances. It's also Lloyd's best movie to date. (She directed 2008's "Mamma Mia!" and 2011's Margaret Thatcher bio-pic "The Iron Lady," for which Meryl Streep won her third Oscar.)


In theaters this week we have "One Night in Miami," Regina King's debut feature, a film version of Kemp Powers' 2013 play about a hotel-room gathering of four famous Black Americans -- Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) and NFL star Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) -- on the night in 1964 when 22-year-old Clay won the world heavyweight title from Sonny Liston. It's talky and reasonably effective, but while I've never seen the play, I left thinking it might have worked better as a piece of theater.

Also, there's "The Devil's Light" that's allegedly opening wide this weekend. As you might guess by the title, it's a horror film that has something to do with exorcism and stars Virginia Madsen (who, after all, has to work), but we haven't been able to come up with much information on it as of our deadline.

"Stars Fell on Alabama," which stars James Maslow as a Hollywood agent returning to Alabama for his 15th high school reunion, is going to the usual video-on-demand streaming outlets today, and if you're looking for a mod-major rom-com, it's not bad. It co-stars Ciera Hanna as a starlet who accompanies the agent to the reunion, pretending to be his fiancee. Hanna is probably best known for playing the yellow Power Ranger in the Nickelodeon show "Power Rangers Megaforce."

The OnFilm print column will return for the next few weeks as we continue what has become our tradition of running Top 10 lists from critics and other cinephiles. We'll continue to do the video version of the column as well.


In Phyllida Lloyd’s “Herself,” Irish actor Clare Dunne plays a mother who finds support and community — the old Irish tradition of “meitheal” — after she leaves her abusive husband.
In Phyllida Lloyd’s “Herself,” Irish actor Clare Dunne plays a mother who finds support and community — the old Irish tradition of “meitheal” — after she leaves her abusive husband.

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