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In 'Herself' A Mother (Literally) Rebuilds Her Life After Domestic Abuse


There is already Oscar talk in Variety magazine - 2021 Oscar talk - for Phyllida Lloyd's new film "Herself" - small, relatively short film with no big-name stars, no CGI super-natural avengers or warriors, but was a standout at the last Sundance Film Festival. It opens with Sandra, a mother, dancing joyfully in the kitchen with her two young daughters.


CLARE DUNNE: (Singing, as Sandra) Like tomorrow doesn't exist, like it doesn't exist.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Daddy.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Daddy.

IAN LLOYD ANDERSON: (As Gary, laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Dance with us, please.

ANDERSON: (As Gary) Ah, geez. Will you just let me get in the door? Will you do something for me? Will you go outside and play and let me talk to your ma?

DUNNE: (As Sandra) Ah, Gary.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Please, I don't want to go out.

DUNNE: (As Sandra) It's cold out.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Please.

ANDERSON: (As Gary) They have coats. Go on.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Please.

ANDERSON: (As Gary) Out.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Please.

ANDERSON: (As Gary) Now.

SIMON: We see that Sandra and her daughters are about to escape from a brutal relationship. And Sandra is determined to build not just a new life for her family, but a home, and by hand. "Herself" stars Clare Dunne, who also co-wrote the screenplay, Dame Harriet Walter and Conleth Hill. And Phyllida Lloyd, CBE, joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us.

PHYLLIDA LLOYD: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: You've directed some big-budget films with household names - "Mamma Mia," "The Iron Lady." What drew you to tell this story in this way?

LLOYD: Well, I'd been looking to do a lower budget film for several years. And Clare Dunne and Harriet Walter, who also plays in "Herself," and I were working together in an all-female theater troupe. We were performing Shakespeare set in women's prisons. And we were very preoccupied by the number of women we met whose journey into the criminal justice system had begun against a background of abuse in childhood. And then Clare had a friend who became homeless in her hometown of Dublin. She was a single mom with three kids. And Clare was just so outraged at the lack of support for her that she sat down and started writing this, her first screenplay. I think, you know, we've all seen the story of the so-called battered woman, but I hadn't read a story like this.

SIMON: And my gosh, I will attest, the results are absolutely stunning. One of the themes that weaves in and out of the story of the building of the house is, as you note, how daunting it is legally and socially for a battered woman to find support in Ireland. And I - my reporting tells me it is not dramatically different in the U.S. and the U.K.

LLOYD: No. I think that's one of the huge issues in the U.K. and Ireland, that there's very little social housing, very little rental accommodation that ordinary people can afford. And so people are ending up - there are about 10,000 families in Dublin, which is a very small city, living in hotel accommodation, sometimes for up to three years - you know, families living in one room and miles away from their schools and their communities. And this is what we saw when we went to do the deep research for the film.

SIMON: The flashbacks of domestic violence are very hard to see. And at one point in the film, Sandra is asked in court, why didn't you leave?

LLOYD: Yeah, most homicides that occur in domestic abuse situations occur at the point when the woman crosses the threshold either with or without her children. It's the moment you're most likely to die. And so it's a preposterous question - you know, why didn't you leave sooner? - because not just you might be going to die, but where do you go? Who's going to support you? Where are you going to literally lay your head for the night? And that is one of the climactic scenes of the film that Clare plays very powerfully.

SIMON: It's the story of a strong, independent woman. But you are reminded how in life, nobody can really be that independent. We all need help, don't we? And she finds it.

LLOYD: Yeah, I think the themes of isolation, such as Sandra's experiencing before she leaves her partner, an isolation from her community, and community itself, those two things are something we've all come in the last year to really, really understand. And she does find a community who help her to rebuild herself, literally. And there's an Irish word in the film, meitheals, which means when neighbors come together to help each other accomplish a task like reroofing a barn, for example, in the village. And this couldn't be done without this diverse community of people who all come to help, you know, for their own reasons.

SIMON: My mother used to use that word (laughter), my Irish mother. I - it made me tear up. I tell you another line that made me tear up - when they begin to build the house and somebody hands Sandra a pickaxe and says, we'll let herself do the honors. Oh, boy.

LLOYD: Yes. Yes. Well, with your Irish roots, you would understand that herself, the double meaning of that, that in Ireland, it means the boss. You know, will - I'll - where you say, you know, do you want to come in for a drink? And the man will say, I'll have to ask herself. So, yeah, you would have picked that up.

SIMON: What do you think a film like this can - how do you think it can reach into people?

LLOYD: Well, I think that it can make us think about what kind of neighbors we are. And I think that, again, the last year have made us all very contemplative of, you know, am I a good neighbor? How much do I need my neighbor? And I think it's about empathy. It's about looking out for each other. And I hope that anyone who sees it who is in a fragile position like Sandra might be moved to think there are people out there if I make a step change.

SIMON: Phyllida Lloyd herself - her new film, "Herself," - thanks so much for being with us.

LLOYD: Thank you so much, Scott.

SIMON: If you or someone you know confronts domestic abuse, please use a safe computer and contact help. That could include a local shelter, or you can call 911 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.